AMERICAN FORK — A new study warns American Fork leaders they need to either stop further development in the city or find more water.
"American Fork city has now fully utilized its source capacity to supply water to new users and needs to immediately develop new water supplies to meet the demands of growth," said the Horrocks Engineers study.
With the city on the verge of annexing 600 acres on the south side of town — which could eventually bring 1,800 homes and 5,500 more people to the town of approximately 23,000 — officials have dismissed the notion of halting growth and are pulling out a divining rod to explore the city's options.
Four options are currently on the table:
Installing a pressurized irrigation system.
Building a water treatment plant.
Drilling more wells.
Stepping up conservation practices.
While there is a sense of urgency — grant applications for any major water project must be submitted to the state in March 2006 — City Council members say they will not rush a decision.
"There is a sense of urgency but not to the point of being pressed into making a decision and making a mistake," Councilman Jimmie Cates said.
American Fork compiled a water master plan in 1998, projecting the city would have sufficient water to sustain projected growth through 2020.
The new report points out, however, those projections did not anticipate the commercial explosion the city has experienced in recent years. It also did not anticipate additional park space, which the city plans to increase by 25 acres next year.
But the bigger problem, the report said, was the drought in 2002 and 2003 that attacked on two fronts — lowering the city's water table while increasing demand on the strained system.
The city's increased water usage came primarily from commercial users, which were not only more numerous than projected but also used more water than expected.
The report says American Fork is "borderline" on meeting its legal water supply requirements for the next year. And while favorable weather conditions would allow the current supply to stretch for as much as two years, renewed drought conditions or water pump failures would require the city to resort to rationing.
Councilman Shirl LeBaron said the city is not in a crisis, as above-average precipitation levels over the past year have filled storage tanks. But the city could be in trouble if it does not act soon (on new resources), he said.
"We've been told that we have a two-year supply of water," LeBaron said. "Our wells are operating at capacity. If we have another dry year like 2001, we could be facing a rationing situation."
LeBaron said the city would likely reactivate a well on 600 East to provide for another one or two years of growth but would still have to take other action to meet long-term needs.
The pressurized irrigation option has been gaining momentum with some council members. Pressurized irrigation reduces demand on culinary water since it comes primarily from sources that are not approved for drinking. The water is used only for outside irrigation and landscaping purposes.
Other Utah County cities — Cedar Hills, Spanish Fork and Saratoga Springs — have used this option to conserve their drinking water resources.
"The biggest advantage we shot for in obtaining a pressurized irrigation system is to have less need for culinary sources," said Konrad Hildebrandt, city manager for Cedar Hills. "This way, our existing sources are enough until buildout."
Hildebrandt said pressurized systems are sometimes more expensive up front but save money over the long run.
Estimates indicate it would take a $32.2 million general obligation bond to install a pressurized system in American Fork. Another $11.9 million, the cost for installing a system in the annexed area, would be paid for using building permit impact fees.
Water storage is also an issue. The study said the city will need to add more storage capacity within two years. A 5-million-gallon tank — estimated to cost between $1.5 million and $2 million — would take about that long to construct, the report warned. A pressurized system, if constructed in the near future, would eliminate the need for additional storage tanks.
The steep price tag is a major concern for Councilwoman Juel Belmont. "I just think American Fork has made some terrible mistakes in the last few years, and we are in a place where we shouldn't even be considering an expense like this," she said.
Belmont said she is also concerned about the inconveniences associated with installing the system and the health problems that could arise from cross-contamination, if the secondary system somehow comes in contact with the culinary system.
She said she would rather see the city spend money on a water treatment plant, which she said would be comparable in cost to the secondary system but would be much more practical.
"We need the water, but there are other ways to do it," she said. "I don't like being stampeded. We need to slow to a walk and think about this."
Cates echoed the financial concerns, citing a number of senior citizens in the city whose fixed incomes could be unfairly stretched if the city makes a bad decision.
"We need to study this thing out and see what is going to be the most cost-effective for the citizens," he said.
LeBaron said the council hopes to have three options in place by January, when a new mayor and two new council members will be sworn in.
"I'm confident we can reach consensus by March and move forward expeditiously," he said.