Matrimony Spring is officially closed. Southeastern Utah District Health Environmental Health Scientist Jim Adamson posted a sign at the spring last Wednesday morning, and the Grand County Road Department sealed the tap by welding in an extension pipe that redirects the water to a culvert below state Route 128 and into the Colorado River.
Located directly across the highway from Lions Park, Matrimony Spring has long been connected to the park in the minds of local residents. But in fact the spring has always been an entity unto itself, city and county officials say. Nobody owns the water rights to it. Neither of the community’s two water utilities, Moab city or the Grand Water and Sewer Service Agency, holds jurisdiction over the spring.
Adamson explained last week that he has kept the spring unofficially in operation for more than 20 years. He said he has made several fixes to keep contamination from entering the spring box, and cleaned it out with a chlorine rinse whenever it became contaminated. But this time he is convinced that an unknown contaminant is entering the water flow somewhere upstream from the spring, and that he cannot remove the total coliform – bacteria that is commonly found in soil, on the surface of leaves and decaying matter – that has been detected in the last two water samples taken from Matrimony.
The presence of total coliform in two consecutive samples does not directly prove that the water is unsafe to drink, but it does indicate that contaminants are entering the stream and the possibility that more dangerous contaminants could follow from the same, unknown, source or sources.
A couple of years ago Moab city looked into the situation and was advised by a water rights attorney that it would not be wise for the city to take over the spring, according to Moab City Manager Donna Metzler. State law requires any public entity that owns a public drinking water supply to comply with all state standards, or it must be shut down
Complying with state standards would not be financially feasible, Metzler said. “People wanted the source to be readily available,” she said. “We would not have been able to provide for that.”
The closure of Matrimony Spring has led to an emotional debate within the community over whether area residents should have access to the spring, and how the water should be used if the public no longer has access. A meeting of city, county, and water district officials, oriented to planning for the eventual development of Lions Park, will take place Feb. 11 at 3 p.m.
The public’s attachment to the spring and Adamson’s extracurricular efforts to keep it operating stem from the Matrimony Spring’s emotional symbolism. “It’s what brought us to Moab 10 years ago. We came to visit, drank from the spring, and that was it,” said Grand County Deputy Clerk Sharifeh Robinson, citing one local legend attached to the spring that suggests those who drink from Matrimony are “married” to the Canyonlands. Another legend, in keeping with its name, is that when couples drink from it they soon will get married.
Regarding emotional symbolism, longtime Matrimony Spring user Jack Campbell said, “It’s such an old institution, so many people have really fond memories of it. At the same time we’re looking at the closing down of the world as we knew it, an era is coming to an end.”
Moab resident Lee Truesdell said part of the value of Matrimony Spring derives from the community ritual of gathering pristine water from the spring. Truesdell called that process “empowering.”
“It was so near and dear to my heart I felt really sad to find out it was closed,” she said. “Like I lost a really good friend.”
The Grand County Road Department did not just close the spring box. A solid steel pipe that directs the spring’s flow to the Colorado River is welded in place so it cannot be tampered with. According to Grand County Council Administrator Shawn Warnke there is concern that, because the water from the Colorado River is over-appropriated, any attempt to develop the spring will run into legal issues.
The issues are complicated by the existence of two other springs close to Matrimony. Adamson said he believes water for all three springs comes from the same source. The rights to the water from one of them, sometimes called Goat Spring, belong to the Moab Valley RV Resort, which uses that water to irrigate landscaping.
The other spring – Lions Park Spring – once provided both irrigation and culinary water to the park. That system was shut down a number of years ago when the water tested bad, according to Lions club spokesman Nick Eason. At that time the city extended its culinary water line to the park.
City water is now available from a spigot near the toilets in Lions Park. Grand County pays for that water, with the bill currently running about $9 per month, according to Grand County Clerk Diana Carroll.
The city has applied to the state to extend the water right application for the Lions Park Spring. Planners hope to use that water to irrigate trees and other landscaping at the park once it gets developed, following completion of a new bridge across the river, according to Eason. That will be in about three years. Applications for grants to pay for landscape architecture and planning are in the works.