Blanding joins MOU to provide water to Westwater, state will pay for new well
by David Boyle
The Blanding City Council approved a memorandum of understanding to bring water to the Westwater community and discussed wellness center updates at their July 26 meeting.
The council entered into a memorandum of understanding with five different entities, entering into an interlocal agreement to bring running water to the 29 homes in the Westwater community.
The agreement between Blanding, the state of Utah, the Navajo Nation, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA), and San Juan County will bring water utilities to the Westwater community.
Although not a part of the memorandum, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has also played a significant role in helping the project move forward.
Located west of Blanding city boundaries on privately-owned Navajo Nation land, Westwater residents have lived for decades without running water or electricity despite having neighbors with those utilities just across Westwater canyon.
In September 2021 the Blanding City Council passed a resolution to allow the city to sell water to other public utilities without annexation into the city.
The requirements include funding to cover the cost of infrastructure to make the connection and providing additional water rights or water resources to contribute to the city’s capacity of the system.
The interlocal agreement satisfies the city’s requirements. As a result, water is coming to Westwater and Blanding City will receive a new deepwater well. It would be the fourth well and also the only well with arsenic treatment.
The state of Utah has awarded a $3.5 million grant from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to the project. While the state originally intended to split the amounts between the Navajo Nation and the city of Blanding, the Nation identified other funds to use for the project.
Now the entirety of the amount will go towards Blanding for infrastructure including the new well and arsenic treatment.
At the meeting, Utah Division of Drinking Water Director Tim Davis highlighted the new well will be the only city well with arsenic treatment.
The other city well water has to be blended with surface water, which means the project will help the city stretch its current water supply.
“The division’s mission is to ensure that all Utahns have access to safe and reliable drinking water. This project represents the city and Westwater meeting that mission.”
The state also committed $497,000 to San Juan County and $381,000 to Blanding City for the design of the water infrastructure including a new water masterplan for Blanding City.
The Navajo Nation has appropriated $5.5 million for the completion of the project from the Westwater side. NTUA will oversee the completion of the project and administer the utilities from a master meter measured by the city.
San Juan County is acting as a fiscal sponsor for grant funding from the state.
Blanding City will provide water services to the community once the project is complete. The city will charge NTUA the same water rates paid by other outside city ratepayers.
In May the Blanding City Council received an estimate of $3.8 million to complete the well. While the city will receive $3.5 million in state ARPA funds, the estimated $300,000 needed to complete the project could come from the church which has committed $500,000 to the project.
Representing the church at the meeting was Elder Todd Larkin. Larkin stated the church is in favor of the MOU and work to bring water and electricity to those in need.
“If we can do something to help somebody else to have a better and happier life I can’t see a reason not to do it. I know there are some challenges and some issues. There always will be in everything that we do and there are some uncertainties just taking the track record so far.”
“There's more money showed up for this thing at this point in time than I would’ve ever conceived to imagine in the beginning and I suspect if we continue to try to do good for the world, heaven will open the way for us to do whatever is best for our Father in heaven’s children.”
Additionally, City Manager David Johnson reports the Navajo Nation has secured a $48,000 grant from Indian Health Services that could be used towards the Blanding side of the project. While the Nation is also applying for an additional $100,000 grant from the nonprofit Dig Deep.
The agreement notes that if the city needs additional outside funding the state will assist in identifying those sources.
Mayor Logan Monson said he’s seen the commitment to assist from all the project entities.
Council member Erik Grover said the term “assist” was a red flag for him. “Oh we’ll ‘assist’ you. No, this was your project. We need to be on the receiving end if it was their project, their goal, their plan.”
Council member Cheryl Bowers says a part of her consideration is that the city will receive a well out of the project.
“I know it’s their project but the city is getting a water source for our residents. As hard as it is to look at all those ‘what ifs’ we are getting a water source that we would procure in the future anyway, we would go after and find, and we’re getting that water source paid for.”
City Engineer Terry Ekker shared that he’s not always been in favor of the Westwater project but after extensive work and negotiation city staff recommended the MOU.
“The con to doing this project is that we’re going to give water for 29 equivalent residential units. We’re going to sell that outside of our boundary. The pros are a new water source, the redundancy there, the arsenic removal, helping our neighbors out here who have never had drinking water.”
Grover said another aspect of consideration for him is the other surrounding homes outside city limits that would have to follow the same guidelines if they wanted to receive water utilities without annexation.
“I believe we are selling ourselves down the river by allowing San Juan County, the state of Utah to dictate what we’re doing. When the lawsuits start rolling in I don’t know how we deal with it because I think they’ll come. I think they’re going to come from several different avenues.”
The city passed the resolution to enter the agreement by a vote of four to one with Grover voting against it.
At the meeting, Johnson also reported on the city’s efforts to update the Wellness Center’s fire suppression system and add showers needed to meet codes, at an estimated cost of $480,000.
The city has applied for funding through the Community Impact Board (CIB). The city will go before the board in August. They were preliminarily approved for a $29,000 grant and a $341,000 30-year loan at one-percent interest.
The city is also applying for a community facility grant with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
During public comment two Blanding residents asked questions about short-term rental regulations, including apparent violations of the city’s zoning ordinance by allowing the rentals in residential zones.
Johnson shared that the issue of short-term rentals, such as AirBNB and VRBO, is an issue where Utah cities have their hands tied.
“The legislature has passed protections with AirBNBs that have taken a lot out of cities’ control, regardless of our city’s code. In fact, cities have been regularly sued over the past couple of years which is part of why that legislation was put into place.”
Johnson did report that he is on a committee with the Utah League of Cities and Towns addressing short-term rentals in Utah.
Johnson says the committee is working to assemble the data and make recommendations to the state legislature.
Johnson also added the timing for the discussion was good as Blanding City is in the beginning stages of updating its general plan.