Decision leads to water fight

Moabites unhappy with closure of spring

The legend of Moab’s Matrimony Springs worked like a charm on Christy Williams.

The resident of Castle Valley, a community of some 300 people northeast of Moab, moved to the area years ago and only intended to stick around for a short time. During those days, she drank regularly from the spring just off Utah Highway 128, which long has served as a primary water supply for many locals and offered crisp, liquid respite from the heat for travelers pulling off the roadway in the shadow of steep, canyon walls.

According to various tales, it is so named because couples who drink from the spring soon become hitched. Or, in Williams’ case, drinking from the spring marries one to the land, never to move away.

But since January, Matrimony Springs, which in recent years was becoming so well known carloads of thirsty people created long waits to get water, has been closed since an increase in coliform bacteria was detected in water samples.

However, Williams, probably like many others who used the spring water exclusively because their well water is too hard, drank from the spring in the days before access was denied.

“I filled up 15 gallons of it the night before they blocked it and drank it until it was gone,” Williams said. “In many ways it’s the heart-blood of the Four Corners region. It’s sort of like survival. There’s also the fact that it’s living water. I think it’s significant that treated water is dead. It’s been bleached.”

Once every four months during much of the past 29 years, Grand County sanitarian Jim Adamson had been checking the water quality at the spring. In the beginning, Adamson, who had heard stories from locals about the water’s purity, was given the go-ahead from county leaders to create a locked box and 4-inch pipe after finding items such as chicken bones and soda bottles in a water collection area at the spring.

On Jan. 12 of this year, Adamson saw gnats in the box and tested the water, which returned positive for coliform bacteria. A second test Jan. 26 produced the same results. A test for fecal coliform, bacteria tainted by fecal matter, returned negative. Still, according to law, the amount of bacteria found in the sampling was more than acceptable, and he advised the county to close access to the spring, which they did.

“We had a half-marathon and a fat tire festival coming up. I couldn’t put those people at risk,” Adamson said. “I look at it this way. My job is to protect the public, period. I can’t put the public at risk. If I just ignored it and the hospital was busy with sick people, how popular would I be?”

Since then, a tap with city water has been installed across the roadway near the intersection of U.S. Highway 191 at Lions Park. The spring water is now diverted down a culvert, which leads into the Colorado River. County officials, who also have expressed their personal displeasure at having to block access to the spring, are reviewing their legal responsibilities and liabilities.

With plans to have the water retested within a month, the county may have a better handle on how to proceed, according to a press release from Grand County Attorney Happy Morgan.

But the spring’s closure has hardly been a popular move among area residents who have protested at the site and delivered a petition with more than 400 signatures to county leaders. A pipe diverting the spring water has been broken twice. Residents want the county to open the spring back up and, like in the years before, let folks drink at their own risk.

Locals gather water from a number of other nearby natural springs, but because those were never built up by the county, it isn’t liable if someone falls sick. Many of those springs aren’t as easily accessible and flows are much slower. Plus, a number of local residents believe in the power of the spring water, living water, as it’s called, and are opposed to the city’s chlorinated “dead water.”

“I think the spring is a big part of what makes Moab magical,” said Damian Bollermann, mayor of Castle Valley.

Bollermann can see the county’s responsibility to public safety, but he also mourns the loss of the spring.

He said neighbors there have resorted to filling up with water at friends’ homes, purchasing it in town or using the Lions Park spigot. 

“I’ve talked to a lot of people who say if the water was turned back on, and if they said it was not safe, they would still drink it,” he said. “They’ve been drinking the water for 20 years. It’s a pretty rare thing to experience. I do think it’s part of the reason people come to Moab.”


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