Utahns fill their bathtubs, flush their toilets, wash their dishes and fill their washing machings millions of times every year. And most folks do it without second thought about where that water goes.
It's a process that results in an estimated 73 billion gallons of wastewater a year.While the "flush and forget" mentality prevails along the Wasatch Front, for many communities scattered across the state that mentality is a virtually impossible luxury.
Raw sewage is filling basements, seeping up through back yards and trickling down public streets, often making its way to creeks and irrigation canals. In some homes, toilets cannot be flushed more than two or three times a day, and no more than a single batch of laundry can be done on any one day.
The ever-present stench has become a part of everyday life.
"I don't think people living in Salt Lake realize how bad it is down here," said Spring City Mayor Ronald Christensen. "They have never had to live with it."
In about two-thirds of the town, an exceptionally high water table prevents septic tanks from allowing raw sewage to filter down through the soils. "We have traditional septic tanks, but most aren't working," Christensen said.
Some residents have resorted to using old wells - some of them 75 feet deep - to dispose of their sewage, but that practice often puts raw sewage directly into the underground water supplies. Other residents have constructed a series of ditches to funnel raw sewage into irrigation canals or down the street gutters.
The town also noted increased cases of giardia, hepatitis, stomach disorders and illnesses with influenza-like symptoms - all of which are believed to be byproducts of the raw sewage.
Spring City is just one of dozens of Utah communities with serious wastewater disposal problems but without funds to build adequate facilities to meet federal standards. These communities could be fined millions of dollars for violating federal environmental health standards.
Unlike urbanites with elaborate wastewater treatment plants, rural Utahns typically dispose of their wastewater through private septic tanks: drain fields buried on each homeowner's property to filter and cleanse the waste.
Septic tanks can be efficient in the right kinds of soils. But many Utah communities are built on clay, which does not allow the wastewater to drain. Many others are built on sandy soils, which allow the wastewater to drain into underground water supplies.
Either way, rural Utahns are facing a monumental problem: how to pay for federally mandated treatment plants.
In Spring City, for example, population 671, a sewer system will cost $1.2 million - about $1,800 for every man, woman and child. And that doesn't include the monthly fees it would take to keep the system operating.
"We can't afford the price tag, whatever it is," said Christensen. "For this town to raise $3 million, forget it. No way. We only have 290 connections in town, and 48 percent are senior citizens on fixed incomes.
"A lot of them are living only on their Social Security. The income is so low in this town that most folks can't afford user fees, no matter how small we get them down to."
The State Health Department has been monitoring the situation closely and has ordered corrective measures regardless of what it costs. A year ago, the town was No. 104 on the priority list. After a visit by the Health Department, it moved to No. 3.
If the city doesn't get the financing, the Health Department could force compliance. "I don't think these people could comply," Christensen said.
Would the Health Department force families from their homes if the health hazard persists? "I don't know how far it would go," Christensen said. "We'd have to take it on a house-by-house basis."
The town's efforts to put in a sewer system has met with a hostile response from some residents - particularly older residents who can't afford monthly fees. The community is split into opposing camps: those who want the system and those who don't.
Under the proposal, some funds would come in the form of Community Impact Board grants and some Federal Housing Administration funds. Some would come in the form of low-interest state loans.
"People never realized the foul smell in town was raw sewage going down the street," said Christensen. "And when they did, it caused all sorts of problems. Neighbor started turning in neighbor for sewage problems."
The problem in Spring City is by no means unique. In fact, it's fairly common outside metropolitan areas. In Mountain Green - a community that has been trying to get a sewer system for 12 years - raw sewage has surfaced in some areas, contaminating nearby water supplies.
In many cases, raw sewage has been funneled into the street, and then to a creek, contaminating fresh water supplies. Such problems have pushed Mountain Green to No. 1 on the state's priority funding list.
As in other communities, the problem at Mountain Green lies in area soils. In some parts of town, the clay soil prevents the sewage from percolating down. In other parts of town, the soil is so gravelly that sewage percolates so fast it is still contaminated when it reaches underground water supplies. And Mountain Green draws its water from wells.
"We've got to do something," said Ron Lawson, chairman of the sewer board. "They (state and federal regulators) won't let it keep going the way it is. The EPA is much more strict now with its standards."
While some residents who don't have septic tank problems are opposing the sewer district, most of the approximately 200 families are willing to pay the $900-$1,500 hook-up fee, plus the $25 a month sewer bill.
The community hopes to build a $2.3 million system, for which $300,000 will come from the community and $2 million in the form of grants and no-interest loans.
"I think we're within a month of signing the loan documents," Lawson said. "But I've thought we were close before, too."
Folks in Hanksville, Wayne County, - the state's No. 2 priority - are also trying to get funding for a sewer system.
"The problem in Hanksville is real tight clay," said Stan Alvie, chairman of the local sewer improvement district there. "It doesn't matter how many septic tanks you dig, they just don't last more than a year and a half at the most. And people just don't have any more room to dig septic tanks."
Like other communities with similar problems, Hanksville has a problem with surfacing sewage. Alvie himself has dug three septic tanks in the past four years, and again the sewage is surfacing.
"Some of the older people here are really opposed to a sewer system," said Alvie. "There's been a problem here for years, but people just lived with it. The older people never had anything more and they don't want anyone else to, either."
With a combination of state loans and grants, Hanksville will be able to pay for the $1.3 million sewer system with sewer bills of $10-$14. "If we weren't so high on the priority list, we wouldn't have gotten the grants and we'd be looking at $50 a month instead."
And no one in Hanksville can afford that, Alvie said. "There is nothing left we can do but put in a system. We don't have a choice."