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Silas Walker, Deseret News
Gerardo Guerrero installs equipment at a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant in Santaquin on Friday, April 26, 2019.

SANTAQUIN — It was one of the most divisive, controversial issues of the day for residents — splitting the city apart on whether to pursue an expensive bond election to recycle wastewater and put it in the irrigation system.

Now, most folks probably aren't even aware of the practice, says Santaquin's public works operations manager Jacob Callaway.

"It was a fight getting it," he said. "It wasn't easy."

The bond election several years ago ended up with three recounts, but the state-of-the-art membrane bioreactor was a first for Utah, and Santaquin became the first city in Utah to reuse treated wastewater in its secondary water system.

Because the recycled gray water is one source of the city's secondary water, Callaway said there is built-in resiliency in the system and often, when other cities have to cut back in times of drought, Santaquin's supply is stable.

Silas Walker, Deseret News
Water is treated and filtered at a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant in Santaquin on Friday, April 26, 2019.

There are multiple ways the 22 cities and towns in Utah County are inching toward more sustainable practices in environmental stewardship, highlighted in a recent survey conducted by the nonprofit advocacy group Utah Valley Earth Forum.

James Westwater, forum chairman, began the survey seven years ago, prodding city leaders to participate.

He said the results this year show significant progress in the conservative county and an acknowledgment by a majority of city leaders that stewardship is not only a moral obligation but a smart choice.

"It is encouraging that Utah Valley area cities and towns are for the most part moving in greener directions — some faster and more extensively than others," he said. "I say 'for the most part' probably because there are exceptions where some communities are apparently resisting environmental progress."

The survey was sent out in March with an early April deadline to respond.

Silas Walker, Deseret News
Jason Calloway examines a water sample at a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant in Santaquin on Friday, April 26, 2019.

Westwater pointed out to city leaders five broad areas of concern:

• Air pollution.

• Pollution, algal blooms and invasive species at Utah Lake.

• Rapid growth, congestion and loss of open space.

• Wasting limited water resources.

• Increasing risk of destructive wildfires due to warmer, drier climates.

The survey itself featured 55 questions in eight categories such as energy, air quality and transportation, water and Utah Lake, and land use, zoning and growth.

Generally, the 14 cities that responded this year had a lot of check marks in water conservation, Utah Lake conservation and support of a shoreline buffer zone.

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Cities had a thumbs up for planting shade and fruit trees, support for locally grown food but only three cities were taking advantage of underutilized public land for community gardens.

More communities are getting on board with educational programs on stewardship, but Westwater said he's disappointed cities are not more aggressive in their pursuit of renewable energy and reducing their carbon footprint.

"While I commend the cities and towns for making progress, we need to do a lot more."

Silas Walker, Deseret News
Santaquin's state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant is pictured on Friday, April 26, 2019.