The recent algae bloom in Utah Lake garnered considerable attention from the media and public — as it should. Cyanobacteria (also called blue-green algae) can produce some of the most powerful natural poisons (toxins) known. And the current bloom might predict problems in other waters. So, we must work together to reduce the nutrients feeding the algae: excess nitrogen and phosphorus, mostly coming from wastewater treatment plants that were not typically designed to remove nutrients.
Algae blooms occur naturally, but human activities increase their intensity, frequency and scope. Harmful algal blooms are on the rise worldwide. That includes Utah Lake, where algal blooms have increased since European settlement. These trends are concerning, as health risks generally increase with bloom intensity and frequency.
Some argue that these blooms are natural, others that nothing can be done to resolve the problem. The preponderance of scientific evidence, and our experience addressing similar problems elsewhere in Utah, suggest that such cases are exceptions to the rule.
Scientific evidence suggests that people cause increasing intensity of algae blooms by modifying hydrology and increasing nutrient inputs to our waters. In Utah Lake, low lake levels, high temperatures and calm winds were among factors causing the current bloom. However, the bloom originated and was most extensive in areas where nutrient inputs — mainly from wastewater treatment plants — are greatest. Nutrient reductions will be integral to long-term solutions for bloom-related problems in Utah Lake.
Nutrient problems are not confined to Utah Lake. A recent report published by my office found that more than 50 percent of monitored Utah lakes have nutrient-related water quality problems of sufficient intensity that prevent support of their established beneficial uses. We also see similar problems in streams and wetlands.
The Division of Water Quality (DWQ) continues to work with stakeholders to identify practical ways to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to Utah’s waters, and to restore those uses where they are already degraded. One example is our new phosphorus rule that applies to publically owned treatment works. Once implemented, the rule will reduce contributions of phosphorus from the state’s sewage treatment plants by two-thirds.
DWQ is also working with these facilities to optimize plant operations to achieve cost-effective reductions in nitrogen. However, it will take much more aggressive and costly approaches if we are to eliminate algal blooms like the one happening at Utah Lake. Recently, the owners of two of the largest treatment plants in the state, Central Valley Water Reclamation Facility and Salt Lake City Water Reclamation Facility, have proposed fee increases to fund significant upgrades to their facilities — forward-thinking decisions that will pay dividends to taxpayers in the future.
Restoration of Utah Lake and other affected waters will take time, money and political will. It is imperative, however, that we work to achieve the immediate goal of preventing the problem of extreme algal bloom problems from getting worse as our economy and population grow. Utah’s population is projected to double by 2060, with the highest growth predictions for Utah County. Unless we address the problem of excess nutrients in our waters, we can expect to see the effects of nutrient pollution.
Most Utahns acknowledge the vital importance of water resources to quality of life. Water quality, particularly nutrient enrichment, needs to be an integral part of our water infrastructure planning efforts to help prevent algal blooms that threaten recreation, irrigation, animals, aquatic wildlife and public health. Together, we can do this.
For now, my advice to anyone who encounters a questionable bloom is to follow the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control: “When in doubt, stay out.”
Please report suspected blooms by calling Department of Environmental Quality’s Spill Line at (801) 536-4123.
Walt Baker is the director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Water Quality.