MORGAN -- Depending on public reaction to a recently completed water study, a water moratorium in Morgan County could end in as few as 30 days. The study revealed sources of nitrates in drinking water and could affect the administration of water rights in Morgan County.
In 2004, the state Division of Water Rights, the Utah Geological Survey and the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District teamed up to begin a groundwater study of Morgan County. Since 2008 and in conjunction with the study, officials enacted a moratorium on all water leasing in the area. That moratorium will be lifted after a 30-day public comment period.
Because the groups anticipated the study would be completed in 2010, Morgan residents were left waiting a year for the results. The county council chambers were packed to standing room only at a recent public meeting discussing the water study.
The study could affect how future water rights are administered in a county that has experienced much residential growth since 2007 and is expected to experience more once the housing market improves.
Unless public comment uncovers significant issues that need resolution, the study will back up a new policy for the county. While water officials will continue allowing exchange applications for wells drilled in what is called the "valley-fill" aquifer, they will not be so free with wells drilled in the "bedrock" aquifer.
"In the bedrock aquifer, there is no guarantee you will hit a water-yielding fracture when you drill a well," said Ross Hansen, regional engineer with the Utah Division of Water Rights. "I'm not saying you can't do a well in bedrock. It will just be more difficult, because we have to study what is going on."
Those proposing well-digging in bedrock will need to prove that well will not affect groundwater, especially that found in Mountain Green in Cottonwood Creek, which Hansen called an over-appropriated water source.
"The good news is you have some of the best water quality in the state," said Janae Wallace, of the Utah Geological Survey. After sampling 50 water wells in the county since 2004, Wallace said she found three wells that exceeded EPA standards for nitrate levels.
Those wells produced as high as 12.8 milligrams of nitrate per liter of water, a level that could affect pregnant women and infants. Two wells had high arsenic levels, she said.
The Weber-Morgan Health Department expressed concern with the nitrate levels found in Morgan County, which motivated the water study, Wallace said. The board wanted the study to figure out what was causing the high nitrate levels.
Wallace concluded that the source was a mixture of animal manure and septic tanks. Feed lots and fertilizers can also cause high nitrates in water.
"We do have a concern with the large number of septic tanks in the valley," said Mike Lowe, of the Utah Geological Survey. "A septic tank limit could be beneficial in the future. There would be less of a concern if you bring in a sewer system."
However, 98 percent of her samples produced water that was classified as "pristine" and "irreplaceable."
According to years of research, water officials said Morgan residents are not using water faster than it is being replenished. It's called a "water budget." According to the study, a total of 661,000 acre-feet of water flow into the county every year, while 600,000 acre-feet flow out.
"It makes us feel warm and fuzzy that we're doing a good job and can continue to allow development," Hansen said.
That could mean that Morgan County will have enough water for the next 25 years, said Tage Flint, general manager of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District. However, he said, the county needs a master water plan. Unless the district works with all other water sources in the county, including the federal government, they will not have enough water to support buildout of the county, Flint said.
To leave written contact on the recently published water study, visit waterrights.utah.gov, or write email@example.com, P.O. Box 146300, Salt Lake City, UT 84114. Include the subject "Comments on Morgan Valley Policy" in all correspondence.