Guest opinion: Utah Lake water quality decisions must be based on science

November 15, 2018

Ask 10 of your neighbors about the value of Utah Lake and you may hear stories of family events, fishing trips, sailing and water skiing. This is despite the naturally shallow, murky nature of the lake. However, recently water quality issues related to algal blooms in Utah Lake have garnered considerable attention from the media and public.

If you are like most people, you probably associate the word “nutrients” with things that keep our bodies healthy and help our lawns grow. Sources of nutrients entering Utah Lake include fertilizers in storm water runoff, animal waste, treated wastewater from surrounding communities and even atmospheric deposition. Currently treated wastewater nutrients are directly measured and the other sources are not. In lakes, nutrients, especially nitrogen and phosphorus, support the growth of algae and plants that provide food and habitat for aquatic insects and fish. However, excess nitrogen and phosphorus can stimulate algae to grow faster than streams and lakes can handle. The resulting algae “blooms” affect the recreation appeal of waters and some contain cyanobacteria that can produce harmful toxins, which can affect wildlife, livestock, recreational users, and drinking water utilities.

Understanding the role of nutrients and how best to reduce their impact is integral to finding long-term solutions for problems in Utah Lake.

Conditions around Utah Lake have changed dramatically over the past few decades. Those changes – along with technological advancements that could improve water quality – have prompted the Division of Water Quality to begin a process to develop water quality standards for nutrients in Utah Lake.

Identifying new nutrient standards for Utah Lake requires a significant amount of effort to first understand the historical conditions of the lake along with conditions contributing to ongoing water quality problems. While it’s one of the largest freshwater lakes in the western U.S., Utah Lake is naturally shallow, is surrounded by a large network of wetlands, and experiences large amounts of water loss due to evaporation. Residual nutrients have accumulated in the sediment over time and could delay efforts to remediate the lake. In addition, most water going into and out of the lake is managed by a complicated system of water rights, controlled by a series of dikes, pipelines and canals. And, of course, development continues to crowd the lakeshore and watershed, reducing or eliminating natural buffers between the lake and manmade impacts.

We need to better understand Utah Lake’s complex ecosystem before we make substantial changes to water quality standards that could have significant environmental and financial consequences.

Members of the Wasatch Front Water Quality Council – an association of publicly owned water treatment facilities located along the Wasatch Front – have joined with the Division of Water Quality and the Utah Lake Commission to help fund this costly and time-consuming research. In addition to $1.1 million expended to date or committed to be expended during the next three years by Council members, the state Legislature has allocated $500,000 and the Water Quality Board has allocated $1 million for the research effort. Additional resources may be required to finish the project.

To help guide this research process and ensure a collaborative, consensus-based and transparent decision-making process, the Division of Water Quality and the Utah Lake Commission have formed the Utah Lake Water Quality Study Steering Committee, comprised of representatives from municipalities, various government agencies, wastewater facilities, water purveyors and scientists.

As entities that treat and return quality water to the environment, wastewater agency costs could be greatly affected by changes to water quality standards. Needless to say, the stakes are high, so it’s crucial to move deliberately.

Engaging stakeholders and keeping the public informed is part of the process. Residents need to understand what is happening and how changes will affect the lake and them personally. After all, it’s public money being spent on water quality research and any future improvements made to wastewater facilities will be funded by taxes and sewer rates paid by Utah County residents.

Utah Lake is your lake. It’s one of our most important natural assets and it must be well cared for and managed correctly.

We encourage residents to participate in the process. Information can be found at utahlake.deq.utah.gov. Let’s join together to make Utah Lake as great as it can be.

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