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Before temporarily running out of water over the weekend and declaring a state of emergency Monday, the southern Utah town of Torrey, located just outside Capital Reef National Park, had struggled for years with its water supply.
Marie Owens, director of the Utah Division of Drinking Water, said state officials are focused now on addressing the town's loss of water but also plan to investigate what caused the problem.
"It's not typical, even with a mainline break, for it to become this big of a problem and drain down the system," Owens said Wednesday.
She said the boil order that shut down Torrey businesses would likely be lifted for the main part of the town by late Wednesday. But the boil order will remain in place for one neighborhood, Owens said, pending lab results to determine if water was contaminated while the system was down. That area, on Torrey's outskirts, did not have running water until midday Wednesday.
Officials say Torrey's culinary storage tank frequently runs low in the summer months when the population swells with tourists and part-time residents. The tank is fed by a 15-mile pipeline that is undersized and often damaged by flooding and erosion, according to the town's mayor.
Wayne County Emergency Services manager Jeri Johnson said the water main that broke last Thursday had been damaged in a flash flood last year. Crews repaired the pipe, Johnson said, but because the town couldn't afford to replace the line, the work amounted to a "temporary fix."
Last week's line break cut off Torrey's storage tank from the spring, located on Thousand Lakes Mountain. Over the weekend, residents and visitors ignored the town's call for conservation and swiftly depleted any water surplus, Torrey Mayor Scott Chesnut said.
Once the system emptied, demand from the town outstripped supply coming from the spring, preventing the storage tank from refilling. The loss of water pressure left about half of Torrey without running water for four days.
Crews also discovered a second leak in the flood-damaged line and repaired it late Tuesday night. Debris from the initial break had plugged the supply line and covered the leak, making it difficult to detect. Between that repair and trucks bringing in water to replenish the system, Johnson said Torrey was on its way to getting ahead of demand and resuming normal operations.
She said she hoped the incident might improve Torrey's chances for new funding to improve its water infrastructure.
Chesnut was less optimistic. The town's system, he said, has struggled ever since it was installed in 1968. The supply pipe's failure "has happened for years before," he said, "and it's going to happen for years to come."
The 15-mile pipe between the town's spring and its storage tank runs through "some of the roughest terrain you've ever seen in your life," Chesnut said. The steep canyon around the pipeline is prone to flooding and damage has been a recurring problem.
"There's not a lot you can do about it," the mayor said. "When you can start controlling God and Mother Nature, maybe you can keep the water."
The town has secured a $1.7 million loan from the state Drinking Water Board and a $500,000 Community Impact Board, which will let the town replace the worn-out 6-inch diameter line with a 10-inch pipe to help fill Torrey's existing storage tank faster.
The tank holds up to 850,000 gallons, Chesnut said, and in the summer, especially on weekends that draw many visitors to town, it runs low. The latest break came just before a weekend, when the town's part-time residents often water their lawns and gardens before returning to their weekday residences.
Johnson said the problem recurs yearly.
"A million-gallon tank would be nice," the mayor added, "but we ain't got it or the money."