A tale of the trail of water in Carbon County
When residents turn on the tap and fill their water glass, they think nothing of it. But getting clean, usable water is not easy. It is a long drawn out process that includes a lot of technology and human expertise.
The water that comes out of the tap is a product of processes the average citizen knows little about. For many people a drive up Price Canyon seems to tell them all they need to know. In the mountains there is snow; it melts and it comes down the streams to the water treatment plant, where the staff there throw some chemicals in it and then they send it into the pipes that go to local homes and businesses.
That supposition is correct in a way. But it is a very simplistic view of the water situation in Carbon County.
While it is true that all of the water used by those connected to Price River Water Improvement District lines, and those municipal and small private companies who purchase water from PRWID comes from the Price River drainage, not all the culinary water in the county comes from that source. Price city, for instance, relies mainly on well water for their supply. Helper City uses a combination of wells and springs. And East Carbon and Sunnyside rely on water from the Bookcliffs through a reservoir system that is a smaller version of the one PRWID uses.
The surface water that PRWID must treat before it reaches a home or a business has an interesting history. First of all one must remember that there is, for all intents and purposes, no new water on the earth. The water that people bathe in today may be the water that Washington rowed across the Delaware on or the water that Cleopatra drank.
Water is just recycled in the earths environment; from salt to fresh and back to salt. Only three percent of the world's water is actually fresh.
As for Carbon County, the bulk of municipal, residential and agricultural water comes from the mountains through the Price River and White River drainage.
The Price River watershed begins at the top of the mountains, some of which are in Sanpete County. For the last 100 years there has been controversy over the direction the water should flow. Carbon county officials believe it should flow down its natural drainage on its way to the Colorado River. Sanpete county interests want a lot of it to be diverted into the their valley, which is actually part of the Great Basin. This divergent thinking has resulted in years of litigation and discussion. At present Sanpete still wants to build a dam on the watershed while Carbon is in opposition.
The streams from these mountains feed Fish Creek which in turn feeds Scofield Reservoir, Carbon County's main source of both irrigation and culinary water. The reservoir is also fed by Mud Creek (which flows down from Eccles Canyon and Clear Creek) as well as from Pondtown Creek (water from mountains northwest of Scofield) and a number of smaller streams.
It is easy for the novice to imagine that the water coming out of these mountains is whole and pure because there seems to be nothing that could pollute the water above that point.
"There are two kinds of pollution sources, " said Jeff Richens, the district manager of PRWID. "One is called a point source polluter and the other is a non-point polluter. Point source polluters tend to be businesses, industry and civil or government facilities. Non-point polluters are people who own private land with such devices as septic tanks, wildlife, and livestock operations that may add to the amount of bacteria and pollutants in the water."
One of the largest potential polluters is the mining industry. But their controls with today's regulations in force keep their runoff out of the streams until it is no longer a problem for the water supply.
"Every industry or entity that discharges runoff of any kind into streams must have a NPDES permit (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permit)," stated Richens. "The mines around this area are very cooperative, and do everything they can to mitigate negative impacts on streams."
Above Scofield Reservoir this means the mines located on Highway 264. At times the mines in the area have even added to the water supply. For instance, when the Skyline Mine flooded in 2003, much of that water was pumped into Scofield and that situation happened to coincide with some terrible drought years. It is estimated that as much as 50 percent of the water in the reservoir that year may have come from Skyline Mine pumping process.
With this in mind, the biggest pollution sources above Scofield are not industrial, but private non-point source pollution.
Some of that is natural pollution; erosion and native animals adding bacteria and solid matter to the streams. But other sources are more damaging.
"Look at these mountains with the cabins and residences that line them," said Richens as he pointed to buildings west of the reservoir. "These structures are all possible sources of pollution. They all have septic tanks, which are legal, but the drainage from those could be a problem at some point."
Another source is the cattle that graze in the watershed, particularly when the water is low.
"The Utah State Division of Water Quality has spent a great deal of money trying to keep cattle out of streams above Scofield," said Richins as he pointed to fences installed along Muddy Creek.
Carbon County's Recreation and Transportation Special Service District also purchased some land south of Scofield town a few years ago, keeping domestic livestock in that area away from Mud Creek.
The reservoir itself is surrounded by a number of pollution sources. The highway and the railroad are two of them. Runoff from both are potential problems. So are the animals that might linger around the edges of the reservoir, the people who use it for recreation and of course, the cabins on the shores.
All the tributaries that feed the reservoir, have some type of pollution going into them. But the pollution that is involved in the reservoir does not, at present pose a real problem for those who treat the water or those who drink it.
"A 1988 study showed a large loading of pollutants above the reservoir," said Richens. "But the natural processes in the reservoir take care of most of the problems before the water is released from the dam."
Before the creation of the first Scofield Reservoir (in the 1920s) the streams all flowed together in Pleasant Valley and created a larger stream that was named the Price River because of an early explorer to the area named William Price.
As one goes downstream past the dam, it seems there is more potential for pollution.
Another source of pollution, albeit some of that natural, is the White River. It's beginnings are in mountains located in Wasatch and Duchesne counties. While its point sources of pollution are very limited, the stream didn't get its name for nothing.
"If you look at the water here you can seen it is very chalky and milky," said Richens as he stood at the confluence of the Price River and the White River near Colton. "There is a natural silt in this water and it is very hard to remove," he said. "It is a natural occurrence in the watershed. We can tell how much water is coming from the White River tributaries at the treatment plant when flow of the Price River is low. The contents of the water tells the tale."
As one progresses down Price Canyon toward the treatment plant there are areas that are fraught with potential pollution sources as well. The Price River is surrounded on both sides by high vehicle traffic. The railroad tracks are on one side and Highway 6 on the other.
"The railroad does a pretty good job of containing their pollution as much as possible," says Richens. "But the highway is another problem."
The highway pollution comes from cars and trucks that leak oil and spill other fluids on the road and off to the side of the side of it. When it rains or the snow melts, the residue runs into the river. These pollutants can cause various kinds of problems. Petroleum products, for instance, are extremely polluting when they mix with fresh water. One part per million can be detected by human taste buds.
Near the bottom of the canyon, above the power plant and right below Castle Gate itself is the PRWID treatment plant.
That is where PRWID personnel labor to provide the clean water that goes into the pipes that supply Carbon County residents and businesses.
(Editors note: This is the first in a series of four articles dealing with culinary water in western and central Carbon County).