SALT LAKE CITY — E. coli contamination of five springs that supply Panguitch residents with drinking water is prompting an emergency funding request to Gov. Gary Herbert for a new well.
Panguitch's city manager said the community 25 miles outside Bryce Canyon National Park will not survive next year's tourist season without the new source of water. For now, residents are getting by with culinary water from two remaining springs, and any outdoor use is banned.
On the other side of the mountain in neighboring Iron County, Parowan residents are also going without water for their lawns and gardens, and hay farmers on the south end of town are hoping to squeak by with one more harvest — even if there's no water to be had.
This summer's devastating Brian Head wildfire has long been extinguished, but its effects rage on in the watershed.
Flash flooding has stirred up groundwater that has contaminated springs serving 800 commercial and residential connections in Panguitch.
City manager Lori Talbot said Panguitch is requesting Herbert's help to secure about $300,000 in emergency money for a new well.
"There is no comfort level having that water come into our distribution system," Talbot said, describing repeated weekly tests showing mixed results. One week there is contamination, and another test shows an all-clear, she said.
"We are not willing to turn that water back on until we feel everything is completely safe," Talbot said.
In Parowan, the city partnered with Iron County to secure $1.9 million in federal emergency watershed funding to replace its secondary water system decimated by August flooding and debris flows in the wake of the Brian Head Fire.
"That money is for emergency repairs to basically bring things back to their state before the fire," said Joshua Jones, Parowan's city manager. "We're pursuing other grants for a retention basin for capacity and flood control."
A posting on the city's website notes the system is down for the season and acknowledges residents' frustration.
"We understand the frustrations; we are frustrated as well. These are not easy, quick fixes. Between the fire and the heavy rains and flooding, we want to work with the engineers and other agencies to get these problems fixed long term," the posting reads.
City Council member Alan Adams farms alfalfa and corn, and while he uses water from a different system, it is also plagued by problems.
"When it rains, it brings down a lot of ash and a lot of trash out of the mountains," Adams said.
The debris such as rocks and limbs overwhelm the system's filters and must be cleaned repeatedly, he said.
"It's been a real problem. I don't know what the remedy is," Adams said. "If it rains, we basically shut the system off for a couple of days and let the mud and debris come down. We try to keep it out of our lines and dump it in the flood channel."
Garfield County Commission Chairman Leland Pollock said the watershed problems being encountered by Garfield and Iron counties due to the wildfire that burned 77,000 acres didn't need to happen if there had been active management of federal forests.
Pollock raised the alarm two years ago in a letter to the supervisor of the Dixie National Forest, asking the district to provide a mitigation plan for the "catastrophic public nuisance" posed by the condition of the forest land.
That request was met by silence, prompting a renewed call by the Utah Legislature's Commission on Federalism urging top Interior Department and Forest Service officials to remedy the paralysis in federal forest management.
On the heels of that early August letter, Pollock flew to Washington, D.C., last week to meet with Doug Crandall, acting undersecretary with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"It was a very productive meeting," Pollock said, adding there was a lot of discussion about initiating a formal Good Neighbor agreement in Utah.
Pollock, chairman of the public lands steering committee with the National Association of Counties, said the program is being used in 20 states with success, including Idaho.
Good Neighbor Authority agreements, which are authorized under the 2014 Farm Bill, allow the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management to partner with states and local entities for watershed restoration and forest management services.
Pollock said he envisions a pilot project using the Good Neighbor Authority for the Dixie National Forest region.
"Everyone seems to think that is the way to do it," he said. "There are huge benefits to this. If it is allowed to work, active forest management could be a reality that could possibly happen again through this program."
On Tuesday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke directed federal land managers and supervisors under his purview to use the "full range of existing authorities" to more aggressively combat wildfire threats.
Zinke's directive specifically includes fuels management that targets dead or dying trees that have become hazards in forests throughout the West, including Utah.
"We must move aggressively to minimize that threat," his directive reads. "If we don't have the people on hand, we have authorities to contract it to capable resource managers in the private sector."
So far this year, 47,700 wildfires have burned 8 million acres across the country, most notably in California and Zinke's home state of Montana.