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Reverse osmosis? It really means cleaning up contaminated water for people

Published: Thursday, Oct. 3 2013 11:47 a.m. MDT

Kevin Fenn samples the drinking water as the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District begins operating its reverse osmosis plant in West Jordan, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013. The plant processes contaminated groundwater into high-quality drinking water.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

WEST JORDAN — An ambitious water-treatment project two decades in the making becomes operational Tuesday, with officials celebrating the completion of a unique process that will amplify area water supplies.

The Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District held a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday to celebrate the landmark and is hosting a community open house and plant tours from 2 until 8 p.m. Wednesday at 8215 S. 1300 West.

Although common in other parts of the country, Jordan Valley's process of using reverse osmosis to treat contaminated groundwater is unique and a first for Utah.

“We are pleased to have completed one of our most progressive water projects yet,” said the district's general manager, Richard Bay. “This project is a significant achievement for us on several fronts. The project is one of the largest groundwater remediation projects in the United States and will add a water supply to an area where water is scarce and demand is increasing.”

The district began the planning and permitting process more than a decade ago, working with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality and Kennecott Utah Copper. The goal was to develop a plan to purify groundwater affected by a century of mining and other activities in the southwest section of Salt Lake Valley.

Over the years, the district implemented a plan to extract the water out of wells and run it through a reverse osmosis treatment plant that will ultimately deliver up to 14 million gallons of drinking water a day to area residents.

“There are only so many water sources out there that we can pull from and so it is important that we manage what we have well and in a responsible way,” Bay said, noting that Utah is the second driest state in the nation.

Reverse osmosis purifies the water by pushing water through a membrane to leave salts and other contaminants behind, tapping into a technology that meets the requirements of federal and state drinking standards.

The byproduct of the treatment process, however, is conveyed through a 21-mile pipeline to Gilbert Bay at the Great Salt Lake. The byproduct consists mostly of dissolved solids such as salts and some trace amounts of selenium, which at elevated levels poses harm to the reproductive health of migratory birds.

That component of the project prompted the district, state water quality regulators and scientists to embark on a $2 million, multiyear study to determine at what level selenium would pose harm to water fowl at the Great Salt Lake.

Ultimately, state regulators developed a salt water standard for the lake, another unique aspect of the project, which has largely been funded by a trust set up by Kennecott.

The discharge into the lake was criticized by opponents of the plan, but, during the approval process, state water quality regulators said they didn't believe the discharge will adversely affect the bird population. Testing will continue now that the project is operational.

Bay has said the discharged byproduct is about one-tenth of the salinity found in the south arm of the Great Salt Lake.

In 2006, Kennecott constructed the Bingham Canyon Water Treatment Plant, which is a similar reverse osmosis project, near the Bingham Canyon Mine to clean up a groundwater plume in that area. The district's plant will cleanup a groundwater plume in that area.

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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