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State officials seek to avoid repeat of summertime algal blooms

SALT LAKE CITY — Environmental policy managers Tuesday discussed strategies for managing algae growth and mitigating the nutrient loading that seeps into Utah's water, causing summertime algal blooms.

Discussions centered around the harmful effects algal blooms last summer that threatened the water supply in Price and resulted in fish kills and high mortality rates for bats and birds.

The Legislature's Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee discussed strategies for preventing algal blooms, with much of the talk focusing on costs and benefits of adopting limits for nutrient runoff into Utah waterways.

While state water quality officials expressed some optimism over this year's high precipitation rate, a factor that can help suppress algal blooms, they also noted that the extra runoff could also carry in more harmful nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrates, exacerbating algae growth.

Erica Gaddis, the newly appointed director of the Utah Division of Water Quality, said though algae is naturally occurring, the levels at which it has affected Utah water sources have been unnatural because of nutrient runoff.

"The kind of bloom we saw at Utah Lake last year cannot really be sustained without an external source of nutrients coming into the lakes," said Gaddis, who assumes her new role next Monday.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued nutrient guidelines by area in 2002, but Utah was among several states that chose not to adopt them. Utah instead opted to determine its own policy through more localized efforts.

The Utah Lake algal bloom last year lasted for three months, caused closures for nine days and saw more than 200 symptomatic cases reported through poison control.

Gaddis focused much of her attention on plans for Utah Lake, which she set out as a model for how the state will change the course of algal blooms and adopt localized strategies to combat them.

Over the past year, Utah Lake officials have implemented an early warning system with three algae sensors providing data at 15-minute increments, as well as new equipment for measuring cyanotoxins at the Department of Environmental Quality's laboratory, she said.

"There is a lot of interest right now in trying to predict whether there will be another big algal bloom season," Gaddis said.

State environmental quality officials have been working with local entities to conduct studies of the lake and determine policy for limiting nutrient loading into the water source, she said.

The harmful algal blooms were reported last summer in Blackridge Reservoir, Mantua Reservoir, Upper Box Creek Reservoir and the Payson Lakes, as well as the toxic bloom in Scofield Reservoir that threatened drinking water in Price.

The effects of toxic algal blooms were also seen through bat and bird mortalities, with scientists finding high concentrations of cyanotoxins in those animals living near affected sources of water.

The interconnectedness of Utah water sources was a notable point of concern as Gaddis described the spread of algae between the Great Salt Lake, Jordan River and Utah Lake.