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Water Quality: Holding the line on Nutrient Pollution

By John Mackey

Nutrient Pollution

Example of a blue-green algal bloom.

So what is it about nutrients in our water that’s such a big deal? The waters I recreate in aren’t green and soupy; in fact, they look pretty good and have plenty of fish. If I opened the tap and my water was cloudy or had a peculiar smell, I would be pretty surprised. Or if I saw fish belly-up all over the place, I’d be concerned. But that can’t happen here, right?

Fact is it’s not always easy to see water pollution or its effects. Nutrient pollution is becoming a big problem because more and more nitrogen and phosphorous are making their way into our water every day. These nutrients come from lots of places—from our toilets, our farmlands, and our green, fertilized lawns—and the more of us there are, the more nutrients end up in the water. Too many nutrients make the algae in the water grow faster, and pretty soon you can have algal blooms that kill fish, make the water taste and smell bad, or even release toxins that can make people and animals sick.

So how does the Division of Water Quality (DWQ) plan to hold the line on nutrient pollution when Utah is growing more every day? Well, we look at what we’ve done in the past and find ways to avoid problems in the future.

Thirty years ago, Deer Creek Reservoir, which provides water to most of the Wasatch Front water suppliers, was facing some serious algal blooms. The big water purveyors, like Salt Lake City, said “Hey, this is a big problem because these algae blooms are adding a lot of taste and odor to our water.” DWQ and the cities put together a plan that re-routed the discharge from the Heber City wastewater treatment plant to farmland where it could be used to grow alfalfa.

Today, we’re seeing the same algae-related problems in Rockport and Echo Reservoirs. Our Water Quality Board just voted to put a nutrient pollution plan in place to reduce nutrients in the reservoirs by 35 percent. Reducing wastewater discharges is a big part of this plan. The Snyderville Basin Water Reclamation District (SBWRD) will invest about $15 million in upgrades to control the discharge of nutrients from its treatment system. If the new system controls and watershed management strategies work as planned, SBWRD’s investment is expected to permanently solve nutrient-related problems in the reservoirs.

Thirty years ago, getting Heber’s waste out of the reservoir helped hold the line on pollution in Deer Creek. We are even better prepared today, with better science and better control technologies. We know that we need to deal with nutrient problems sooner rather than later and that taking moderate steps now will give us time to come up with new technologies and management approaches that will do more than just “hold the line.” Working together, we can protect our waters over the long term at a reasonable cost. And that’s in everybody’s best interests.

You can learn more about the ways DWQ is addressing nutrient pollution in Utah by checking out our Nutrients web page. Want to know how you can help? Go to EPA’s Nutrient Pollution webpage, where you can find tips on what you can do in your home, your yard, and your community to reduce nutrient pollution.

I am a staff engineer from the engineering section at the Division of Water Quality. I like to fish and swim in really cold water, and I love nutrients—but mostly for growing vegetables.

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