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San Juan River, Utah Lake added to Utah's list of impaired waterways

SALT LAKE CITY — A massive Colorado mine spill that sent toxic metals into the San Juan River and the occurrence of a persistent algae bloom problem at Utah Lake propelled those two bodies of water to the state's list of impaired waterways.

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality's draft biennial report released Monday also notes that more than half of Utah's lakes do not meet water quality standards, and nearly half — 47 percent — of its streams are impaired as well. Additional monitoring will be required for another 32 percent of Utah's waterways where there is insufficient data to make a determination, according to the report.

The agency is encouraging people to weigh in on the report during a 60-day comment period that ends Aug. 9 and has scheduled a public hearing for 2 p.m. July 19 in the department's boardroom, 195 N. 1950 West, Salt Lake City.

Every two years the department's Utah Division of Water Quality compiles the data it collects and puts it an integrated report that denotes if the state's lakes, rivers and streams support designated "beneficial" uses that include drinking water, recreation, agriculture, waterfowl, game fish and aquatic life.

In the case of Utah Lake, the division has developed improved assessment tools to analyze harmful algal blooms that have resulted in a nutrient-fueled increase in toxic cyanobacteria that can harm people or their pets.

A public health advisory was issued two years ago by the Utah County Health Department when a family's dog died after playing in Utah Lake water near the Lindon Marina. A veterinarian concluded the dog ingested the contaminated water during its romp in the lake.

Utah Division of Water Quality officials also warned that people should not swim or boat in areas of bright green water.

At the time, the division blamed local wastewater treatment plants' discharge into the lake for the presence of excess nutrients. The division has since pursued adoption of a new rule that takes effect in 2020 regulating the discharge of the nutrient phosphorous, which can contribute to the formation of algae blooms.

With the San Juan River, portions of it were impacted by the breach of the Gold King Mine in Colorado due to contamination caused by heavy metals.

State officials have long-term concerns that high flows in the river may stir up the metals, which likely are mixed with sediment and rocks on the river's bottom.

"We continue to monitor that," said Walt Baker, the division's director, "and we are now in the spring runoff period."

The division worked with the U.S. Geological Survey and set up data readers that allow real-time monitoring of the river for turbidity, which Baker said would indicate the presence of the heavy metals.

"We are also working on a long-term monitoring plan and the EPA continues to do its own monitoring," he said.

On Aug. 6, 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered the excavation of a horizontal passage into the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colo. The breach of the entrance caused an earthen collapse and sent 3 million gallons of contaminated yellow sludge into the Animas River, which empties into the San Juan River in New Mexico.

The sludge eventually made it to the San Juan River as it winds through Utah and empties into Lake Powell.

The sludge was contaminated with multiple toxic metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury.

In May, the state of New Mexico filed a lawsuit against the EPA, asserting the agency had failed to hold anyone accountable for the "environmental crisis" and had downplayed the spill's impacts on a river that is a chief source of drinking water and irrigation for its residents in northwestern New Mexico.

Utah water quality officials expressed consternation a few months earlier when they stumbled upon new information about elevated levels of metals in the San Juan River, complaining that the federal agency did not directly notify the state over the contamination. The Utah Attorney General's Office said at the time it was preparing to file a lawsuit.

Baker said the newly released draft by his division shows that improvements need to be made in the stewardship of Utah's waterways.

"While many of our waters are in pretty good shape, we’re seeing others that are facing increasing threats from a variety of pollutants,” he said. "We will need to work together to find ways to protect our waters and improve those that are experiencing problems.”

The division, for example, is beginning a new partnership with the Davis County Health Department to manage potential health risks associated with frequent blooms of algae at Farmington Bay, a critical water fowl habitat. Over the course of the next couple of years, the division will work to craft the parameters of an assessment of the bay.

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com

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