There was a time when raw sewage was dumped in the Jordan River in Utah. It was an industrial wasteland, and once named the most endangered river in the country by an advocacy group.
Fast forward to today. Fires and floods can still pose threats to drinking water systems, and communities sometimes undergo boil orders to protect public health, but not like in years past.
Things have drastically changed with the passage of the Clean Water Act, which turns 50 years old on Tuesday.
“The Clean Water Act really incorporated better technology for sampling and detection of contaminants in the drinking water and helped us reduce the levels of contaminants in the drinking water with new detection limits and with new filter technologies,” said Scott Paxman, general manager of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District.
Technology and water: Paxman said the Clean Water Act prompted the district to replace three aging water treatment plants from the 1950s with state of the art technology to screen for and eliminate cryptosporidium, a microscopic parasite that can cause disease in humans, as well as Giardia, another parasite problematic for people.
Paxman said the new plants in 2002 were a $5 million investment and use ozone and ultraviolet rays to eliminate the parasites. It was a heavy lift, but it means safer water for the residents the district serves.
“That was a big step for us. And we were one of the few in Utah that even had that technology at the time,” he said.
But the United States, and Utah, is still not in the clear. Polluted waterways remain a problem.
Like other states, Utah struggles with excess nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus that lead to harmful algae bloom outbreaks that can cause all manner of health problems for livestock, dogs and people wanting to recreate.
Utah Lake is one of the most vulnerable to those blooms, but multiple other water bodies in Utah have been impacted as well due to heat, stagnant weather and pollution from agricultural runoff and wastewater discharge.
Coincidentally, the anniversary of the Clean Water Act is on the same day the U.S. Supreme Court is due to take up a case that challenges the breadth of the Waters of the United States rule, or WOTUS.
Protecting water: The rule has been the subject of controversy and litigation for years. Supporters say its current form is protective of a finite and valuable resource, and to overturn the rule would jeopardize availability of clean drinking water for millions. Opponents, including the state of Utah, say its interpretation under the Obama administration went too far and infringes on ranchers, farmers and the property rights of ordinary people.
Ahead of the anniversary of the Clean Water Act, the U.S. Department of Interior also announced on Monday a $210 million investment to develop 1.7 million acre-feet of additional water storage capacity in the West — or enough water to support 6.8 million people for a year. The funding will also invest in two feasibility studies that could advance water storage capacity further once completed.
“In the wake of severe drought across the West, the department is putting funding from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to work to expand access to clean, reliable water and mitigate the impacts of this crisis,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. “Water is essential to every community — for feeding families, growing crops, powering agricultural businesses, and sustaining wildlife and our environment. Through the investments we are announcing, we will advance water storage and conveyance supporting local water management agencies, farmers, families and wildlife.”
The department also recently announced new steps for drought mitigation in the Colorado River Basin, supported by the Inflation Reduction Act, releasing a request for proposals for water system conservation measures as part of the newly created Lower Colorado River Basin System Conservation and Efficiency Program. The act provides $4 billion in funding for water management and conservation in the Colorado River Basin, including at least $500 million for projects in the Upper Basin states that will result in water conservation throughout the system. Those Upper Basin states include Utah.