Plan to store underground water backfires, forces Utah town to upgrade to costly sewer system

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) A subdivision is under construction in the Cache Valley city of Millville. Nitrate pollution here, associated with septic systems and agriculture, is forcing town leaders to abandoned an innovative water storage program and sewer the bucolic town.

Millville • All year long, a perennial spring discharges water through the Cache Valley city of Millville, providing what could be a steady source of pristine drinking water from under the Bear River Mountains.

The bucolic hamlet a few miles south of Logan, however, cannot tap the water from Garr Spring in summer because farmers have first dibs on it. Yet the town cannot store it in winter because it lacks a reservoir. So this water runs out to the Blacksmith Fork River for part of the year, rather than benefiting the town of 2,000 which holds rights to it.

The Utah Geological Survey offered a seemingly ideal solution. Inject up to 35 million gallons of the Garr Spring water underground in the winter, when no one needs it, then pull it out in summer, when water supplies become depleted.

Millville was to be a test case for a practice called “aquifer storage and recovery,” or ASR, seen as a partial solution to Utah’s uncertain water future. But the plan went awry last month after the Utah Department of Environmental Quality rejected the town’s groundwater injection permit because it appeared the well selected for the project would push nitrate contamination downhill to wells used by the neighboring town of Providence.

The DEQ identified Millville’s septic systems as a source of the nitrates and ramped up pressure on the town to connect to a sewer system as neighboring towns, including Providence, Hyrum and Nibley, did 15 years ago. The Bear River Health Department jumped in and imposed a moratorium on new septic systems.

Nitrate pollution associated with septic systems can degrade aquatic ecosystems and be toxic to humans by disrupting the ability of hemoglobin to move oxygen, according to Richard Worley, the health department’s environmental health deputy director.

“For infants under 6 months of age, if they drink water contaminated with nitrates above 10 [milligrams per liter], they could get severely ill,” he said at the Board of Health meeting where the moratorium was approved. “It affects the oxygen in their system. It’s called blue baby syndrome. If not treated, they could die.”

What these actions mean for Millville, a strictly residential community of modest homes, is a quadruple whammy with dire financial implications.

‘They didn’t do it right’

Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune Millville Mayor David Hair visits his city’s Glenridge well, where the town was injecting spring water as part of an effort to store drinking water underground. But nitrate pollution under this Cache Valley town, associated with septic systems and agriculture, is forcing town leaders to abandon an innovative water storage program.

“Because of the moratorium, retired families can’t sell their land. It really hurts these young couples who just bought a lot they can’t build on,” Mayor David Hair said. “I feel bad about how the whole thing happened. To just put on a moratorium is very hard. They didn’t do it right.”

Many of the 54 lots that had been identified for new homes cannot get developed until Millville gets linked into Logan’s wastewater-treatment system.

Town officials had hoped that the spring water injection program would salvage Millville’s Glenridge well, which has long registered nitrate levels just below the drinking water standard of 10 milligrams per liter. The goal was to dilute the groundwater there with pure spring water to extend the life of the well. But according to the Utah Division of Water Quality, injections didn’t do much for pushing down nitrate levels over time.

“The city failed to show that the project would not have a detrimental effect on the aquifer, including on the drinking water wells of neighboring communities such as Providence,” said division Director Erica Gaddis. “The nitrate in the aquifer below Millville City is at least partially sourced from septic system effluent generated by homes in the city.”

A study by the Utah Geological Survey also noted the rise in nitrates in Providence well but argued that geochemical modeling and groundwater travel times indicated it was not connected with Millville’s ASR activities.

Gaddis concluded otherwise and argued it would be unfair to jeopardize a water source used by a town that had invested in sewer. Soils around Millville can safely support one septic system per three acres, yet the town’s residential density is about six times that, according to her division.

“Millville should first eliminate any additional contribution to the nitrate contamination in the Cache Valley principal aquifer by connecting to a sanitary sewer for new development and connect existing systems to sewer to the maximum extent practical,” Gaddis wrote the mayor in a letter announcing her intention to reject the permit.

Besides, an analysis of the water in Millville’s injection well indicated trace amounts of an antibiotic, ingested by humans as medicine, and caffeine, offering evidence that septic systems are at least partly to blame.

“This case is an important example for other growing communities that as density increases,” Gaddis said, “communities should reevaluate the feasibility of sanitary sewer to protect local aquifers for drinking water.”

Still the rejection blindsided town officials, who say they were led to believe they would get approval for the ASR project until the last minute, and after they invested heavily in engineering studies and tests.

“The beauty of doing ASR here is the infrastructure is in. All we have to do is turn a valve,” said City Recorder Corey Twedt. “It’s really a perfect fit for our city. You don’t need to put new pipes in or anything else.”

Cost will be millions

Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune Livestock inhabit a muddy pasture in the Cache Valley town of Millville. Nitrate pollution here, associated with septic systems and agriculture, is forcing town leaders to abandoned an innovative water storage program and sewer the bucolic town.

The Health Department did ease its moratorium to allow 20 more septic systems. But these systems will be rendered useless in a few years when all of Millville’s 630 homes get connected to sewer. In the meantime, the city’s streets and residents’ landscaping will be torn up as pipes are put in the ground. The exact cost, which is unknown at this time, will be at least several million dollars.

Residents voted against a sewer system in 2002, but the town did install a trunk line west to Nibley, whose sewer is linked to Logan’s treatment plant, in anticipation of getting connected. But with sewer, Millville residents will see their property taxes rise to pay for it, their yards trenched, and monthly bills for wastewater treatments.

“It’s a shame we had to do water and sewer at the same time,” Twedt said. “With our tax base, it’s going to be difficult.”

Meanwhile, Hair is not so sure septic systems are responsible. Nitrate contamination also can come from fertilizer and cattle excrement, and there’s plenty of the latter in Millville, a historic agricultural haven associated with dairying.

“They are blaming it on septic,” Hair said, “to make us go to sewer.”