Star Valley doesn’t need Blue Ridge water and doesn’t have a groundwater contamination issue, the town council decided during a two-hour meeting last week.
After months of debate, the council decided it would not go after a share of Blue Ridge Reservoir water, unwilling to spend millions to secure rights to water the town may never need.
But the back-and-forth debate about whether to pay for water now to avoid a problem later didn’t carry over to whether septic systems might eventually pollute the shallow water table. A water consultant had issued a sharp warning about septic tank leaks, but the council quickly agreed the town need not do anything now.
The vote on Blue Ridge, by contrast, split the council — with councilors George Binney and Paty Henderson voting in favor of going after C.C. Cragin water.
Living in the West, you never turn down water, Binney said.
The council agreed, but said that without a water shortage Star Valley shouldn’t spend any more out of its $2 million in reserves.
“I understand George’s point: if you are thirsty you won’t put a price on a glass of water, you’ll pay everything you got, but we are not thirsty,” said Councilor Gary Coon.
Binney criticized that logic. “One of the things I see wrong with politics in this whole country ... is politicians worry about now, they don’t worry about the future at all.”
Ironically, when the discussion turned to water contamination several minutes later Binney said the not a problem today. “I make a motion that we don’t have a contamination issue so we don’t have to worry about it at this point and time.”
Bill Davis, Star Valley Water and Sewer Commission chair, said ignoring water contamination is flawed thinking. “You have to consider dealing with your sewage disposal system at the same time you are dealing with your water supply. If you ignore one, you are in jeopardy of losing the other,” he said.
But Mayor Bill Rappaport said, “You are getting off track.”
Councilor Barbara Hartwell asked Davis where he thought the town should spend its money — on a sewage system or new water sources.
“You don’t have the floor, I am sorry,” Rappaport told Hartwell. “You (Davis) want to wrap this up?”
“I just think it is very important to consider the quality of groundwater and the decision to go with Blue Ridge. If you deny Blue Ridge and rely totally on the aquifer here, then it seems to me you are running the risk ... (of) jeopardizing that supply,” Davis said.
Despite Davis’ plea, the council voted not to seek Blue Ridge water.
“We have talked about this for three years now, we have put motions forward and I guess they have always been ambiguous so I would like to make sure nothing ends up ambiguous because I don’t want to talk about it again,” Binney said.
Henderson asked if the town opted out of Blue Ridge if they had an opportunity to get a share of water in the future.
“That is the most important question right there,” Binney said.
“No we don’t,” Hartwell said.
Once SRP doles out the 500 acre-feet of water available to Rim Country communities, it is unlikely the town could go back and get a share. Mesa del Caballo is already in negotiations for nearly 100-acre feet of that water and another half a dozen communities are in talks for the rest. Payson will get 3,000 acre-feet of water from Blue Ridge.
However, Payson might eventually sell some of the water to Star Valley if it has extra, said Councilor Vern Leis. Payson has already agreed to pump water to Star Valley in an emergency.
With Payson’s guarantee of emergency water, the council questioned spending millions to get water it has no way to distribute.
The majority of Star Valley residents are on private wells with only 360 homes hooked into a water system. The town will take over the water system from Brooke Utilities May 1, with no plans to expand.
Experts have estimated it would cost at least $13 million to install a water system throughout Star Valley to deliver Blue Ridge water, said town manager Tim Grier. And since the town does not have the borrowing power to fund such a project and the council is against imposing a property tax, it is unlikely the town will build a water system soon.
Nonetheless, Binney said the town should spend money it has sitting in the bank on Blue Ridge.
But Coon cautioned that current agreements require any community that contracts for Blue Ridge water to use it within five years. If not, the water goes away and there is no refund.
“If we do not have the ability to use it we lose it,” Coon said. Buying water from Payson in an emergency is cheaper and easier.
Davis urged the council to consider whether Blue Ridge water would help it deal with the contamination of the current water supply.
“If you can feel confident and we are going to continue with the present sewage and disposal system that we have throughout the town, then I question the wisdom of relying on this sole source of water for the future,” he said. “The sewage disposal system concerns me a lot.”
Only 14 percent of the town is hooked into a sewage system. More than 1,000 parcels dispose of waste using private septic systems.
Water experts have said the possibility of contamination exists, especially since the town sits on fractured granite, Davis said.
“So you believe we should work on getting our sewer system up and running (rather) than getting more water?” Hartwell asked Davis.
“The Tetra Tech report basically said with the conditions we have now on septic tanks, we have a potential problem,” he answered.
The council questioned Davis’ claims of contamination. No one has complained of getting sick off the water, Henderson said.
Regular tests of wells used by RV parks have revealed no problems.
“That gives us a good indication of the water now,” Coon said. “Your concerns are shared by all. The quality of water is very important, but you are working on hypotheticals and what ifs.”
A Tetra Tech study found it would cost tens of millions to build a sewage system in Star Valley. “As much as we’d love to have a sewage system, it is just pie in the sky thinking,” Coon said.
While the septic situation may pose a problem, “we are not there yet, so I think we are jumping ahead of ourselves talking about spending all this kind of money on waste water at this point in time.”
While the council decided contamination is not a concern, monitoring well water levels is. The town stopped monitoring levels in 15 private wells two years ago. The town revived the program when it decided to take over Brooke Utilities water system.
After some debate, the council agreed to keep the existing monitoring devices in place and add several more to the wells it was buying from Brooke. The town will collect water level data for six months and after that, decide how to analyze it, if at all.
Coon challenged that decision.
But Binney argued, “if you don’t need it, all you have wasted is a little bit of cost for someone to go collect it. But if you need it and don’t have it, you can’t replace it, that is the difference,” said Binney.