Water Quality
2016 State of the Environment Report

The Division of Water Quality (DWQ) protects surface and ground water through programs designed to protect, maintain, and enhance the quality of Utah’s waters. DWQ issues permits for point discharges into waters of the state, works with stakeholders to reduce nonpoint pollution from agricultural operations and residential runoff, and uses scientific data to develop strategies to protect the water quality of Utah’s ground water, lakes, rivers, and streams.

DWQ is particularly concerned about the impacts of growth on water quality. Utah’s population and economic growth carry the potential for significant impacts to the state’s water quality. To address these growth-related issues, DWQ has focused its protection efforts on the following areas:

  • Nutrient pollution
  • Spill response
  • Water-quality funding
  • Nonpoint source reduction

The division also works to improve operational efficiencies through increased online permitting, ongoing development of a centralized database for onsite wastewater treatment data, enhanced spill response mechanisms, and electronic report submissions.

Scofield Harmful Algal Bloom

Nutrient Pollution

Excess nitrogen and phosphorus in waterbodies, known as nutrient pollution, is a growing problem in Utah and across the country. This pollution comes from a variety of sources, including wastewater treatment plants, nonpoint pollution from agricultural operations, and residential and municipal stormwater runoff. Nutrient pollution poses a significant threat to Utah’s economic growth and quality of life, leading to substantial costs to the state and taxpayers if left unaddressed.

A DWQ administrative rule requiring all wastewater treatment plants to monitor for nitrogen and phosphorus went into effect in 2015. This monitoring requirement allows the division to characterize the magnitude of the state’s nutrient pollution problem and helps the division ascertain how its nutrient reduction strategy is working. Under the rule, some treatment plants will need to meet more stringent effluent limits as an adaptive and interim step until protective nutrient standards can be developed for each waterbody in the state.

Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs)

Nutrient pollution of waterbodies can lead to harmful algal blooms. These blooms occur when high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the water combine with warm temperatures and calm water to create explosive growth in the cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) that exist naturally in lakes and streams. Some types of cyanobacteria produce potent cyanotoxins that are harmful to people, pets, livestock, wildlife, and the ecological health of surface waters.

Conditions during the summer of 2016, including low water levels, abundant sunlight, high nutrient levels, warm water temperatures, and calm waters, led to numerous algal blooms in Utah waterbodies. These blooms were unprecedented in their size, scope, and severity.

DWQ participated in a coordinated, multi-agency response to these blooms by:

  • Conducting extensive sampling to track their progress
  • Identifying the cyanobacteria species responsible for individual blooms
  • Analyzing cyanobacteria cell concentrations
  • Testing for cyanotoxins
  • Charting trends
  • Coordinating with stakeholders
  • Keeping the public informed of changing conditions

DWQ provided state and local agencies, particularly local health departments, with sampling test results that helped these entities make determinations about lake closures, secondary water usage, and allowable recreational uses of affected waterbodies.

Utah Lake and Jordan River

On July 13, 2016, a recreationist reported an unusually large algal bloom on Utah Lake that extended from Provo Bay to State Park Harbor. Sampling and analysis confirmed the presence of cyanobacteria species known to produce cyanotoxins. High concentrations of cyanobacteria in the lake met and exceeded DWQ, Utah Department of Health, and World Health Organization thresholds for actions recommended to protect human health. Cell-count concentrations were three times the high health-risk threshold, resulting in the first-ever closure of Utah Lake. The Utah Poison Control Center received a record number of calls from individuals who were exposed to the bloom, with approximately 30 percent of the callers (nearly 200 people) experiencing HABs-related symptoms.

High cell-count concentrations in the Jordan River and its tributaries and canals also led to the closure of portions of the Jordan River near Utah Lake. Irrigation companies and one city shut down their secondary water as a precaution, and residents were advised against using the water for lawns and gardens. As the bloom dissipated, the lake reopened, and “Danger,” “Warning,” and “Caution” signs were removed.

The bloom reemerged in August 2016, and screening-level toxin test strips showed the presence of the cyantoxin microcystin at levels that could pose a human health risk. Some areas of the lake, such as Lincoln Harbor, showed persistent, high cell-count concentrations and toxin levels and remained closed or had posted signs for the duration of the summer. Sampling showed the bloom concluded in early October 2016.

“Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District would like to express appreciation to you and your staff … for taking the lead in coordinating the most recent response to the harmful algal bloom event that occurred in Utah Lake and the Jordan River in July and August this year. Having … DWQ coordinate the sampling and information-gathering efforts of other state and local agencies, as well as having a coordinated and consistent data set from which stakeholders could make decisions, was invaluable and led to a very successful response effort” — Richard P. Bay, General Manager/CEO

“A big thank you from the mayor and city council of Riverton City for all the help you gave us this summer with the harmful algal bloom. You provided us with excellent technical information that became the foundation of our decisions.” — Mayor Bill Applegarth and the Riverton City Council

Payson Lakes

Beginning in early August 2016, several lakes in the Payson Lakes complex experienced high cell-count concentrations and microcystin levels. Cell-count concentrations at Big East Lake were over four times above the “dangerous” human-health threshold, and high toxin levels in September resulted in its closure. The Utah County Health Department posted warning advisories at both Box Lake and McClellan Lake due to high cyanobacteria cell-count concentrations and the presence of toxins. At one point, Payson City stopped drawing water from the lakes for its pressurized irrigation system. Late fall sampling showed a continuing bloom under the ice at Big East Lake.

Scofield Reservoir

A cyanobacteria bloom at Scofield Reservoir that began in late July 2016 produced elevated cell-count concentrations and very high levels of microcystin, a toxin known to cause liver damage. Toxin test results in mid-August showed toxin levels in the moderate to high human health risk category. In late August, a massive fish kill and elevated microcystin concentrations at multiple locations at the reservoir prompted concerns about the impacts of the bloom on drinking water and secondary water use in Price and Helper. The Southeast Utah Health Department closed the reservoir after toxin test strips showed microcystin concentrations in the reservoir had reached record-high levels. The reservoir reopened in mid-September as the bloom dissipated.

“DWQ (was) very supportive during the algal bloom (by) alerting the city of the harmful algal toxin in the Price River.” — Edward Chavez, Mayor, Helper City

HABs Coordinating Committee

In 2015, DWQ organized a HABs coordinating committee that currently includes representatives from DWQ, the Utah Department of Health, local health departments, the Division of Drinking Water, Utah State Parks and Recreation, the Utah Department of Natural Resources, Utah Poison Control, and other stakeholders. The committee developed outreach campaigns to educate the public about health risks from HABs, discussed agency messaging, expanded the 24-hour DEQ Spills Line to include bloom reports, and fine-tuned the decision-making matrix for issuance of health advisories at affected waterbodies. The groundwork laid by the committee facilitated effective agency response and coordination during the 2016 blooms. The committee will build on “lessons learned” this past summer to improve communication with the public and coordination with entities impacted by these blooms.

Utah Lake Study

The Division of Water Quality (DWQ) initiated the Utah Lake Water Quality Work Plan to map a path forward for evaluating impairments on Utah Lake, developing tools for making water-quality decisions, and incorporating past, current, and future stakeholder/partner work on the lake. The two-phase, four-year water-quality study will look at the role excess nutrients play in the water quality and ecology of the lake and will build on the initial Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) study that was put on hold in 2007.

DWQ released its Draft Water Quality Work Plan 2015-2019 in the winter of 2016. Phase 1 of the study will:

  • Consolidate existing data for the lake
  • Identify data gaps
  • Assess the extent to which the lake is meeting its designated beneficial uses
  • Develop an analysis of the quantity of nutrients entering the lake
  • Select a water-quality model that DWQ can use for its decision-making

Phase 2 will use the information collected in the first phase to guide additional research needed to develop nutrient water-quality goals specific to Utah Lake. These goals will guide decisions regarding further nutrient reductions in the watershed beyond those already required.

The Water Quality Board awarded a $1 million Hardship Grant in August 2016 to support the second phase of the lake study.

2016 Integrated Report (IR)

The Clean Water Act (CWA) requires states to assess the conditions of surface waters every two years to determine whether they are meeting their designated beneficial uses. To meet this requirement, DWQ compiled all existing and readily available data, conducted beneficial-use assessments, and summarized the results into a biennial Integrated Report (IR) to submit to the EPA in December 2016.

DWQ reported on the condition of 750 river and stream segments (15,583 river and stream miles) and 142 lakes and reservoirs (1,467,222 surface acres). The state classifies waters based on their uses and develops water-quality standards to protect those uses. Utah’s designated uses include drinking water, recreation, aquatic wildlife, and agriculture. The Great Salt Lake has separate beneficial-use designations due to its unique characteristics.

The report found that more than half of Utah’s lakes do not meet water-quality standards. While 21 percent of the streams assessed met water-quality standards, 47 percent did not. Another 32 percent had insufficient data to make a determination and will require additional monitoring. DWQ added several new waterbodies to the list of non-supporting waters in Utah, developed new methodology for assessing harmful algal blooms and dissolved oxygen, and crafted a new vision for implementing the 303(d) program that tailors strategies to specific situations in the 2016 IR.

Data collected in the San Juan River, a Utah waterway impacted by the Gold King Mine spill, led DWQ to list two segments of the river as impaired for metals. Improved assessment methods for harmful algal blooms (HABs), a nutrient-fueled increase in toxic cyanobacteria that can harm people and pets, resulted in the listing of Utah Lake as impaired for recreation uses due to HABs. The 2016 IR contains new sources of data, tailored strategies for restoring and protecting water quality that move beyond a “one-size-fits-all” approach, and a draft methodology for analyzing high frequency dissolved-oxygen data, a critical component of aquatic health.

DWQ also made plans to work with the Davis County Health Department to manage potential health risks associated with frequent harmful algal blooms in Farmington Bay. The division will collect additional data and develop methodology for a full assessment of the Bay for the 2018 Report.

Coal ash spill sends piles of black ash into the Price River

Coal ash spill in Price River

Spill Response

The frequency of oil and chemical spills in Utah waters has increased in recent years, and DWQ has responded by identifying effective and efficient ways to respond to spills and improve coordination with other agencies. The 2014 Spills Kaizen helped the division pinpoint the areas where it could improve its process and streamline its spills response, including the hiring of a full-time spills coordinator to oversee spills response.

Tibble Fork Reservoir

A dam-rehabilitation project on Tibble Fork Reservoir triggered a large sediment release that killed hundreds of fish and spread metal-laden sediment along the north fork of the American Fork River. DWQ’s spill coordinator and water-quality scientists collected and analyzed samples from the release and provided this information to the Utah County Health Department and Utah Department of Health to assist them in making use determinations and advisories for the affected waters. While total metals didn’t exceed human-health screening values and dissolved metals concentrations didn’t exceed screening values for agricultural or aquatic life, the release exceeded state water-quality standards for total suspended solids (TSS) and turbidity. DWQ issued a Notice of Violation and Compliance Order to the North Utah County Water Conservancy District for a number of water-quality and permit violations, including discharging while not so authorized under a valid state discharge permit, releasing a pollutant to state waters, and discharging waste that degraded water quality.

Price River Coal Ash Spill

A flash flood overwhelmed the Carbon Power Plant’s stormwater retention pond, allowing flood waters to breach a culvert around a large coal ash pile and wash approximately 2,700 cubic yards of cover material and coal ash into the Price River. Samples showed elevated heavy-metal concentrations near the site of the spill, but none of the samples violated state water-quality standards. Rocky Mountain Power, the owner of the power plant, is currently conducting a cleanup and assessment. Coal ash found in the irrigation canals below the landfill has been removed and disposed. The company intends to sample several locations along the river to ensure there is no significant metals contamination from the incident. DWQ issued a Notice of Violation (NOV) and Compliance Order for the incident and expects to have the NOV out for public comment at the end of the year.

Water Quality Funding

Water-quality improvements can carry significant costs, which is why DWQ provides low-cost and no-cost funding for wastewater infrastructure and water-quality projects in the state. The Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund (SRF) receives, on average, a combined $9 million each year from state and federal funding, with an additional $15 million, on average, from loan repayments. The financial assistance program helps communities leverage or supplement funding for water-quality improvement activities.

Wastewater treatment plant construction and upgrades are vitally important for reducing nutrient pollution in Utah waters caused by population growth. The state’s aging wastewater treatment infrastructure, tighter standards, and population growth will mean many communities will turn to DWQ’s low- or no-cost funding program for plant upgrades and construction in the future.

Upgrade of Pinion Hills Wastewater Treatment System Dammeron Valley

DWQ worked closely with the Washington County Water Conservancy District (WCWCD) in the proactive development of a wastewater treatment system that will accommodate growth in the Dammeron Valley subdivision and protect ground water in the underlying aquifer from nitrate pollution.

The subdivision’s original wastewater system was designed and constructed to accommodate up to 86 connections. When development in the subdivision began to approach this limit, the WCWCD reached out to DWQ for options that would allow for growth while still protecting ground water. DWQ and WCWCD worked together on the design of a replacement wastewater treatment system that met the developer’s needs and state requirements to protect public health and water quality.

The new system, slated for completion at the end of 2016, replaces the existing concrete septic tanks with large fiberglass septic tanks, recirculating filter tanks, and a pump tank. Treatment of the effluent will drastically reduce the organic loading to the soil and allow extended use of the existing drain field.

“The Washington County Water Conservancy District commends the Utah Division of Water Quality on its professional and proactive approach to tackling the difficult issue of waste water management for Dammeron Valley … John and his staff spent extensive time with our staff on the telephone and in meetings evaluating the factors that might influence a decision on how to proceed to protect the environment without unduly limiting Dammeron Corporation’s development goals. They provided input based on their considerable expertise in geology and wastewater, assisting the district’s technical staff in considering available options. They were consistently professional, industrious, and collegial with our staff. They also treated the developer with great courtesy and professionalism. With their help, we have been able to … meet … (our) goals … It has been a pleasure working with John Mackey and his staff on this matter.” — Ron Thompson, General Manager, WCWCD

Logan City

DWQ closed a low-interest loan of $70 million to support Logan City’s proposed new wastewater reclamation plant. This loan will fund 60 percent of the project, which supports projected community growth for the 20-year design period and employs advanced treatment technologies to improve water quality in Cutler Reservoir. This reservoir is currently listed as impaired for nutrient-related water-quality problems.

Moab City

Moab City received a low-interest loan of $10.5 million to support its proposed wastewater treatment plant project. This funding package supports modernization and replacement of treatment infrastructure that is 50 to 60 years old and has been challenged in recent years to comply with water-quality requirements. The original facilities were constructed in response to the uranium boom, but as the community grew, wastewater treatment needs changed. The proposed facilities will accommodate projected growth in the city and surrounding county. Additionally, the new facility will be capable of managing hauled wastes from surrounding state and national parks, remote facilities, and homes across the southeastern part of the state. This aspect of the project supports cost-effective operation of onsite wastewater disposal systems. Affordable septic tank maintenance benefits the state broadly as it contributes to the control of nonpoint-source water pollution.

Salem City

Salem received a loan of $13 million to construct a new mechanical treatment plant that will meet the community’s needs for wastewater disposal as residential and commercial growth expands and water-quality requirements become more challenging to meet.

Duchesne City

Duchesne City received a funding package that included $400,000 in a grant subsidy and a loan of $2.7 million to upgrade and rehabilitate the city’s four-cell lagoon system with improved treatment and waste management capabilities. The Water Quality Board recognized the community’s current economic situation and hardship due to the recent downturn in the oil market, so it set the loan interest rate at 0.25 percent with an extended term of 30 years. Tri-County Health Department received a hardship grant of $221,000 to help address a public health hazard in the Stonegate Development from failing onsite wastewater disposal (septic tank) systems.

Hinckley Town

Hinckley Town received a $160,000 construction grant to be used in conjunction with a $96,000 Community Development Block Grant and a local contribution of $39,000 to upgrade four pumping stations that collect and deliver wastewater to the town’s treatment plant. The town agreed to fund depreciation of these pumping stations as a condition of the grant.

San Juan Spanish Valley Special Service District

The San Juan Spanish Valley Special Service District received a loan-funding package to construct a new sewerage system that will connect it to the regional wastewater treatment plant in Moab, Utah. This project will enable the district to protect its important ground water resources from septic tank discharges while accommodating strong regional community growth.

Summit County

Summit County received a loan of $1,030,000 for construction of a new sewer line. This new sewer will connect the Silver Creek Subdivision with the Snyderville Water Reclamation District and will eliminate septic tank discharges in the headwaters of East Canyon Creek, which is impaired due to nutrient pollution.

Nonpoint Source Projects

Nonpoint-source (NPS) pollution can come from a number of sources, including streets, parking lots, agricultural lands, and construction sites. NPS pollution can include:

  • Excess fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides from agricultural lands
  • Sediment from erosion or construction activities
  • Bacteria and nutrients from livestock, pets, and septic systems

The NPS program provides funding to improve the water quality of impaired waterbodies using a voluntary, incentive-based approach. Cooperators receive financial assistance to offset the cost of implementing projects that protect and improve water quality. Projects use Best Management Practices (BMPs) and follow the watershed-based planning strategy. Because nutrient pollution is one of the primary causes of waterbody impairments, many of the funded projects are designed to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loading into Utah waterways. In Fiscal Year (FY) 2016, DWQ awarded $1 million in state NPS funds to 34 projects and $987,458 in federal funds to four projects around the state.

Strawberry River Restoration Site

Strawberry Reservoir Restoration

Strawberry Reservoir, a large manmade reservoir located in Wasatch County, is one of Utah’s premier trout fisheries. Low oxygen levels from elevated phosphorus concentrations in Strawberry Reservoir had left the waterbody unable to fully support its cold-water-fishery beneficial use.

The Strawberry River Watershed had been heavily grazed and the riparian vegetation eliminated. Stream banks were sloughing off, and sediments high in phosphorus were washing into the reservoir. The majority of the phosphorus loading came from the tributaries, specifically the Strawberry River, which contributed 22 percent of the annual phosphorus load.

In 2001, partners came together to restore the Strawberry River Drainage. Restoration efforts included stabilizing 13 miles of streambank, creating 22 oxbow-pond habitats, and improving channel sinuosity. Invasive woody species were removed and native vegetation planted in the floodplain. Grazing pressure was decreased by installing three miles of exclosure fencing to prevent unrestricted cattle access.

Since restoration efforts began, the average phosphorus load from the Strawberry River has dropped considerably, reducing phosphorus concentrations in the reservoir and returning it to its beneficial use as a cold-water fishery.

Fremont River

Human activities throughout the watershed resulted in excess loading of phosphorus into the Fremont River. Several animal feeding operations were in close proximity to the river, allowing nutrient-rich runoff to enter the river during snowmelt and significant precipitation events. Several stretches of streambank had also experienced significant erosion.

A local steering committee developed the Fremont River Water Quality Management Plan, and the Fremont River Conservation District oversaw its implementation. DWQ administered $425,600 of the federal funding to implement a portion of the work. Landowners completed stream restoration projects and implemented best management practices (BMPs) to control sediment and nutrients in runoff from animal feeding operations and irrigated cropland areas. Improvements included:

  • Relocation of two animal feeding operations away from the river
  • BMPs at 17 additional animal feeding operations to prevent animal waste from entering the river
  • Sprinkler irrigation systems to eliminate irrigation return flows to the river
  • Additional riparian fencing

These activities led to a reduction in phosphorus levels and an increase in dissolved oxygen levels, resulting in its removal from the list of impaired waters in Utah.

Continuous Improvement/SUCCESS Framework

DWQ is committed to continuous improvement to improve performance and implement innovations that advance quality, efficiency, and effectiveness. The division has expanded the SUCCESS Framework process from the management to the staff level to generate more improvement ideas and opportunities. Listed below are a few of the ongoing process improvements within DWQ.

Stormwater Permitting

DWQ now provides online permitting for stormwater Utah Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (UPDES) general permits to ensure permits are processed in an efficient and timely manner. Hours spent processing permits have dropped dramatically since the online permitting system began in 2011.

Spills Incident Management

DWQ is working to increase the percentage of incidents with enforcement decisions (such as NOVs/Compliance Orders) within a target time frame. The division completed work on a baseline in July 2016 and established a targeted time frame and estimated staff hours in October 2016. The addition of a new Spills Coordinator with extensive spills experience will help with this effort.

Comprehensive Permitting Issuance

DWQ updated the division’s project database to include major milestones and a tracking system of the full review process, as well as the steps for internal technical review. The division is continuously updating the system, which has become an effective tool for generating data and administrative reports.


The Numbers

Permits administered (total)

  • Ground water: 57
  • Surface water: 578 (including permits from the sewer management program)
  • Storm water
    • Industrial storm water: 716
    • Construction storm water: 3030
    • Municipal storm water: 92

Large underground systems (UIC) 7

  • The UIC Program has 3,673 injection wells in its geodatabase and 720 facilities.

Utah / SRF Loan Program

  • Projects: 220 +232 nonpoint source = 452
  • Funding assistance provided: $688, 600,000 + 9,700,000 nonpoint source = $698,300,000
  • Project costs: $1,140,000,000 + 9,000,000 nonpoint source = $1,149,000,000
  • Annual assistance: $13,971,000 (draws) +$1,000,000 nonpoint source = $14,971,000