Processing Magazine

Utah needs massive investment to tackle chemical pollution in water bodies

May 21, 2013
water body and guy with laptop
Utah's waterways contain too much nitrogen and phosphorous, which can lead to prolific algae blooms.

Utah might have to face a bill of $1.2 billion for tackling what regulators there believe is the most serious water problem the state has seen in the more than four decades since the federal Clean Water Act came into effect. The issue is related to the excess population of algae blooms in water that consume oxygen and threaten aquatic life.

The problem stems from the fact that Utah's waterways contain too much nitrogen and phosphorous. While both elements are naturally occurring in water, if their concentration exceeds certain levels this leads to prolific algae blooms that can tip the delicate balance of waterway wildlife, Deseret News reported.

The gravity of the problem was highlighted by Walt Baker, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality, who addressed attendees at the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee meeting. He said that state legislators should act promptly to resolve the problem as quickly as possible and warned that waiting until the federal government has come up with a solution might be very harmful. By failing to act before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) establishes criteria, resolving the problem might become unaffordable and impossible to to achieve, Baker commented.

He calculated that the best scenario, in which all wastewater treatment facilities are fully upgraded and equipped to deal with the chemicals in the effluent, would cost the state a $1.2 billion investment. However, the minimum that could serve as a solution would require about $220 million. The state made the decision to take the middle path and approved a $450 million solution, funded over 20 years.

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Baker estimated that the $450 million needed to upgrade technology in state wastewater treatment facilities that discharge water to rivers could be covered by an average monthly increase of $3.40 to each household's bill. Treatment plants that already have such technology in place, such as the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, are not likely to see any increase at all, he said.

Nutrient pollution has not been a very high-profile problem but it has far-reaching implications. In Utah it has led to death of cattle and pollution of water bodies. For instance, Utah Lake's greenish color is created by the concentration of chemicals in the water, Baker explained. The problem threatens various activities such as fishing and boating because chemicals can make waters murky and cloudy and can reduce the oxygen level, thus damaging the fish population.

Baker noted that the EPA had drawn up a strategy for states to deal with the nutrient pollution problem by setting down numeric criteria, which established levels of pollution that were safe and marked thresholds to pinpoint excessive pollution. About 60 percent of states across the country are working to develop a standard, while the remaining states have done nothing. Utah is certainly taking steps to develop a standard but has plenty of work to do before it can be implemented, he said.