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Do Nutrients Fall from the Sky? A Dust Dilemma

By Janice Brahney, Guest Blogger

Dust in the air

We often think about the impacts of dust on air quality, but it may be affecting water quality as well. Photo credit: Janice Brahney

DEQ invites guest bloggers to share their thoughts on issues that impact our environment. We appreciate their insights and the opportunity to broaden the conversation with others in the community.

Dust is as old as dirt. Wind erosion and dust storms are natural phenomena in the semi-arid regions of the western United States. However, human land use and drought have the potential to increase the susceptibility of soil to erosion by reducing vegetation cover, exposing lakebeds, and by disturbing the landscape through a variety of recreational or industrial activities.

We have long known that this erosion removes the fraction of the soil that people care about – the soil fraction that is rich in nutrients, water holding capacity, and organic matter.

A reasonable question is then, where is that dust going and what impact does it have when it gets there?

As it turns out, elevated dust deposition appears to have significant effects on low-nutrient freshwater systems through the enhanced delivery of phosphorus – one of the most important nutrients for aquatic environments.

Without going into too much detail, an intense sampling campaign over several years indicated that dust from southwestern Wyoming’s Green River Valley was facilitating the transport of phosphorus to high mountain lake ecosystems in the nearby Wind River Range. Dust-affected lakes had higher phosphorus concentrations, greater biological productivity (e.g., increased phytoplankton and zooplankton growth), and altered organismal communities. Furthermore, elevated dust deposition and the associated changes to these lake systems was a new phenomenon that we were able to tie directly to human land-use upwind.

An interesting point is that the land-use was not generating dust storms akin to the dust-bowl era; rather small chronic erosion events were having a large cumulative effect. These results led to many more questions. For example, how widespread are the lakes affected by dust-phosphorus?

I conducted two separate studies in an attempt to address this question. The results strongly implied phosphorus is entering many lakes though atmospheric pathways and that this flow has been increasing in recent decades. Though both published papers from this work are circumstantial, they are provocative and hint at a widespread, previously undocumented pathway for one of the most important ecosystem nutrients.

Chart showing Nutrient levels are rising in high mountain lakes and streams. Dust may be the culprit.

Nutrient levels are rising in high mountain lakes and streams. Dust may be the culprit. Stoddard, John L., John Van Sickle, Alan T. Herlihy, Janice Brahney, Steven Paulsen, David V. Peck, Richard Mitchell, and Amina I. Pollard. “Continental-Scale Increase in Lake and Stream Phosphorus: Are Oligotrophic Systems Disappearing in the United States?.” Environmental science & technology 50, no. 7 (2016): 3409-3415.

In the first paper, “Is atmospheric phosphorus pollution altering global lake stoichiometry?” we compare dust chemistry from mountain environments around the world to lake chemistry in the same regions. Mountain lakes are really good indicators of atmospheric nutrient deposition because their catchments tend to be small, steep, and lack vegetation. This means the rainwater that ultimately ends up in the lake has very little time to take up nutrients from the land around the lake. As a result, lake water in these lakes looks like the regional rainwater. If phosphorus emissions were increasing due to human activity, then we would expect to see greater deposition rates of phosphorus — and greater lake water phosphorus concentrations — around regions where this type of human activity occurs. That is exactly what we found. However, correlation is not causation, which is why the title has a question mark.

Collaboration with the EPA produced a second paper: “Continental-scale Increase in Lake and Stream Phosphorus: Are Oligotrophic Systems Disappearing in the United States?” Here, we examined data from thousands of rivers and lakes in the continental U.S. looking for changes in chemistry over three sampling periods in the last decade. Shockingly, we found that the number of lakes and streams that could be classified as low-nutrient had dropped precipitously from approximately 30 percent to less than 7 percent of lakes and 3 percent of streams. In addition, the lakes and rivers that changed the most were the least impacted by human activity in their watershed.

This raises the question: If the phosphorus is not coming from human activity within the watershed, is it coming from outside of the watershed via the airshed?

There is, however, another potential explanation. Even though rainfall has not increased in much of the continental US, rain intensity may have increased, which can lead to greater erosion rates in the catchment, increasing the flux of phosphorus to these systems. At present, a lack of monitoring data prevents us from determining the primary cause of increasing phosphorus concentrations in these remote systems.

Though neither of these latest papers provides a smoking gun for the atmospheric pathway of phosphorus, they indicate that more research and more data are needed. Many government organizations around the world collect rain, but do not measure phosphorus. Many organizations measure atmospheric aerosols, but only the fraction smaller than 10 micrometers (about 1/10th the size of a grain of salt). Further, aerosols collected at any size are rarely analyzed for phosphorus content. There are many reasons for these omissions — dust is hard to measure, samples are often contaminated with bird poop, and soluble reactive phosphorus will start to disappear as soon as it is collected. But there are some manageable solutions to these challenges.

Clearly, given the importance of phosphorus to aquatic ecosystems, this issue should be investigated further. Beyond the transport of nutrients and effects on aquatic systems, many questions remain. For example: What else is being transported and what are the potential effects to human health?

I look forward to answering some of these questions and more with my graduate students at Utah State University. Stay tuned…

I am new faculty in the Department of Watershed Sciences at Utah State University. I have a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science, and a Master of Science and PhD in the Geological Sciences. I am interested in understanding human and natural controls on freshwater ecosystems and the consequences for the organisms that live within them. I aim to conduct research that both makes progress on important scientific questions and produces knowledge that is immediately useful to land and ecosystem managers who must make the best decisions possible as they balance the needs of our human communities and the natural systems they affect. I live in Logan, Utah, and enjoy almost any activity, so long as it is outside.


This entry was originally published on June 5th, 2017, updated on June 5th, 2017, and posted in news.

Oil and Gas App Streamlines Inspection Process

By Whitney Oswald

oil and gas wellImagine being an oil and gas compliance inspector and needing to head out into the field for a few days to inspect many sites. Before even heading out to the field, you have to spend quite a bit of time prepping for your trip. Identifying what sites you want to visit, getting the permitting and compliance documents together and printed off for each site, and trying to determine directions to those sites. Sometimes you might even get out in the field only to find out the site doesn’t have any equipment installed yet. And if you find yourself with free time, it’s hard to check out many additional sites, because you don’t know any of the basic information about those sites or even if they are located within state jurisdiction. Arriving at the site with a stack of paperwork, clipboard, and pen while hauling around your Infrared (IR) Camera and other tools doesn’t make your job any easier, either.

What if I told you that Utah Division of Air Quality (DAQ) has figured out a novel approach to streamlining this whole process, improving many of these noted issues and frustrations associated with oil and gas compliance inspections?

DAQ, along with the Automated Geographic Reference Center (AGRC) recently completed an EPA Exchange Network grant-funded project to develop an Oil and Gas Tablet and Desktop Compliance Application. The goal of the application was to increase the efficiency of oil and gas field inspections by DAQ compliance personnel. The software was designed with two working parts:

  1. The desktop computer interface, which is a browser-based application (this portion can also be used from a tablet if desired)
  2. The tablet interface, an Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI)-based tablet specific application, Collector and Navigator.

The application allows an inspector to plan a trip using the desktop application, downloading digital permits and documents to the tablet in preparation for the inspections. Using this application, an inspector in the field will have the ability to collect and store pertinent field data, including notes and images in real time on a tablet. On return to the office, the inspector can update the compliance database by uploading and synchronizing the data collected with the tablet to the enterprise database and can use the collected data to write a compliance memo or other compliance documents.

Oil and gas well and tanksThe application provides high-resolution imagery, so an inspector can get a good idea of the equipment installed on the site before even setting foot on the ground. It also provides information about all the oil and gas sites in the Basin, including basic information such as operator name, facility name, and throughputs, or more complicated information like emissions. Finally, the application is a Geographic Information System (GIS)-based application, so each site is included on a map with latitude and longitude coordinates and jurisdictional overlays. This allows inspectors to always know what jurisdiction a site is on. Finally, the software includes voice-navigated, point-by-point directions to help inspectors get to where they’re going.

Our hope is that this application will help to make the oil and gas compliance inspectors jobs a little easier. And, if all works out, this same application architecture could be expanded for application at other sources.

The DAQ compliance section has been a huge help and an important partner in the development of this application lending their time to provide input and feedback of the application. We hope to have the application out in the field for real world use in June 2017, and we look forward to seeing the efficiency increases achieved.

The DAQ app is just one of the many continuous improvement projects at DEQ. Our agency is committed to advancing our mission to safeguard Utah’s air, land, and water, making efficient use of taxpayer dollars, improving our performance, and implementing innovations that advance quality, efficiency, and effectiveness. Check out our FY 2018 Budget Presentation to the Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee for a division-by-division list of DEQ continuous improvement projects.

I am an environmental scientist with the Technical Analysis section at DAQ. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from Utah State University and a Master’s degree in Environmental Science from the University of Utah. When not working, I love traveling and spending time outdoors with my husband and two dogs.

This entry was originally published on May 30th, 2017, updated on June 1st, 2017, and posted in news.

ZOOm Go Electric: Clean Transportation at a Discount Price

By Clayton Johnson, Guest Blogger

ZOOm Go logoDEQ invites guest bloggers to share their thoughts on issues that impact our environment. We appreciate their insights and the opportunity to broaden the conversation with others in the community.

Local nonprofit organizations Utah Clean Energy and Utah’s Hogle Zoo have joined forces to offer the ZOOm Go Electric program, which aims to tackle the Wasatch Front’s air quality issues. The goal of ZOOm Go Electric is to improve local air quality by facilitating increased adoption of clean, electric transportation options. To reach this goal, the program offers community members the opportunity to purchase an electric vehicle (EV) or an electric bicycle (E-bike) through a streamlined process and at a discounted price.

ZOOm Go Electric provides discounts on electric vehicles.

Electric vehicles are quiet, easy to drive, and protect our air quality.

Electric Vehicles and E-bikes can help us address our air quality issues because they emit zero tailpipe emissions. They contribute far less emissions compared to gasoline cars, even taking into consideration the upstream emissions from the electricity generation required for charging. Currently, cars and trucks are responsible for roughly half of the criteria air pollutant emissions that cause poor air quality days. Because EVs and E-bikes contribute up to 99 percent less of some of these pollutants, the increased adoption of these cleaner transportation options represents an important tool for addressing air quality issues along the Wasatch Front.

ZOOm Go Electric provides discounts on eBikes like the one pictured here at Hogle Zoo.

Why not ride an E-bike the next time you visit Hogle Zoo?

Grant funding from the Utah Clean Air Partnership (UCAIR) made this program possible. UCAIR has also supported Utah Clean Energy’s past EV discount programs. In 2016, Utah Clean Energy formed partnerships with the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Weber State University, and Utah State University to offer the U Drive Electric and Drive Electric Northern Utah programs. Through both programs, 231 community members purchased electric vehicles last year.

ZOOm Go Electric participants can take advantage of discounts of up to 25 percent on EVs and up to 45 percent on E-bikes from five participating EV dealers and nine participating bike shops. The program discounts are pre-negotiated based on a group-purchase model and come directly from the participating vendors. ZOOm Go Electric gives individual community members the opportunity to take proactive steps towards improving local air quality for all. Make the switch to clean electric transportation with ZOOm Go Electric. Don’t delay! The program ends May 31st.

Interested community members can learn more and enroll in the program at www.zoomgoelectric.orgAfter enrolling, participants will receive a confirmation email with a discount code and instructions about how to follow up with the EV dealers and bike shops of their choice. Those who wish to participate have until May 31st to sign up and make a purchase.

I’ve been with Utah Clean Energy since 2015. The majority of my time is focused on coordinating Utah Clean Energy’s Community Solar and Drive Electric programs, both of which are increasing the adoption of rooftop solar and electric vehicles in Utah through community outreach, a streamlined process, and discounted prices. Originally from Florida, I moved to Utah to attend the University of Utah where I received my bachelor’s degree in Environmental and Sustainability Studies in 2014. 

This entry was originally published on May 22nd, 2017, updated on May 22nd, 2017, and posted in news.

DEQ’s Greatest Asset? Its Employees

By Jen Potter

Photo of the employees who cleaned up the Unity Gardens for an Earth Day service project

DEQ employees volunteered to clean up the Unity Gardens during an Earth Day service project

When I was asked to write a blog about the Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s commitment to employees, I asked myself one important question: does DEQ’s commitment to employees include a commitment to employee engagement? While commitment affects an employee’s overall satisfaction with his or her job, engagement goes a step further. A commitment to employee engagement means creating a work environment where employees thrive, and where they in turn are committed to the organization’s goals and values. It’s all about how individuals see their organization.

As our Deputy Director Scott Baird says, “Having a commitment to employees means having a commitment to each other.”

So, how does DEQ do this? I work in the Executive Director’s Office, so I see firsthand how hard our leaders work to balance what DEQ can do with what DEQ wants to do. They are always looking for ways to improve the employee experience.

Professional development for employees is important to DEQ. This photo shows three air-quality scientists presenting their research.

Air Quality scientists Nancy Daher, Whitney Oswald, and Chris Pennell. DEQ encourages its employees to engage in cutting-edge research

Professional Development

Our scientists, engineers and other talented staff don’t just come here with a degree in their field of study and stop there. New technologies, new research, and new challenges arise constantly. DEQ is committed to helping employees boost their knowledge, pursue educational opportunities, and enhance their skills. Employees who are encouraged to learn and grow have greater job satisfaction and contribute to making DEQ the best it can be.

Employee Engagement

Our Executive Director does “walkabouts” in DEQ as often as he can. Dropping by employees’ cubicles or offices on a regular basis helps him get to know staff and become acquainted with the different teams that work here. This type of engagement has enhanced employee morale and shown that our director is truly committed to the employees of DEQ. This has been a huge benefit to staff here at DEQ, because they feel like they truly can talk to him.

Employees enjoy getting tohgether for fun activitie. this photo shows Deborah Ng dressed up for Halloween as an oil can to encourage recycling.

Hazardous Waste Manager Deborah Ng has fun at the annual Halloween party while encouraging folks to recycle their used oil.

Employee FUN

How do you make an office more fun when you are working on serious concerns for the State of Utah? You build people up, you encourage advancement, and you encourage a sense of light–heartedness. You find balance between what you have to do, and when you can pause just a second to look at what you have. We work in an amazing state with so much to offer, not just to our visitors but to our staff. Getting together for fun activities reminds us why we protect this state and gives us the motivation to not only want to do our jobs better, but to form the kinds of relationships that make our organization stronger.

Employee Recognition

Managers and employees have a unique opportunity to acknowledge each other with “On-the-Spot” awards. These awards are a small token to say “thank you” for going above and beyond. Every year, division directors pick one person on their team who exemplifies DEQ’s Mission, Vision, and Values. These individuals are honored because they didn’t just come to work; they improved the State of Utah’s environment.

Employees receive recognition at a luncheon in their honor. Photo shows DEQ administrative professionals.

DEQ couldn’t do the great work it does without these talented administrative professionals, so the agency recognized them at a celebratory luncheon

For me personally, just working here has been rewarding, and that has been because of the leaders I have worked with, starting with Walt Baker, the director of the Division of Water Quality (DWQ). Walt taught me about the importance of communicating and was always seeking my feedback. He reminded me that my contribution was invaluable to DWQ. That in my leadership role, I needed to teach my team how to be empowered, learn to trust themselves, and most importantly, learn to trust each other. Walt showed me that no one was little or insignificant, that we all make a difference.

I am fortunate enough to work for our Executive Team now. They are true leaders. They lead by example; they never shy away from doing what is right for everyone, not just for themselves. Their doors are literally always open, and they are always willing to listen about how to improve. They aren’t afraid to hear the bad, and once they do, they want to do what they can to improve and make things better. That is a true commitment to employees. As an employee, you know you are valued.

Building great leaders is key to building great employees. DEQ is committed to building a great team, one I am proud to be a part of!

I am the Executive Administrative Assistant in the Executive Directors office for DEQ. I have worked for the State of Utah for six years, and love serving this great State! When I am not at work, I enjoy being with my family spending quality time together.  


This entry was originally published on May 15th, 2017, updated on May 15th, 2017, and posted in news.

Every Week Is “Safe Drinking Water Week” at DEQ

By D’yani Wood

Click on image for a larger view

Water is a source of life. It only takes one twist of a knob to turn on the sink faucet or the shower, a few button presses to wash your clothes, all with clean water. But it would only take one little dangerous microorganism in that water to make it lethal.

Clean water does not magically appear. It is not as simple as running a pipe from a water source to your home. The systems in place providing us with clean drinking water are complex, and they are constantly in motion to safeguard you and maintain a steady supply of safe water for all of us to drink and use.

When I started here at the Division of Drinking Water (DDW), I, like most of us, knew nothing about the process of providing safe and clean drinking water to pretty much every human in our country. I had a general idea that it was complicated, but I didn’t know about the effort that so many hardworking people put in to ensure we can all drink our water without fear of becoming sick.

At DDW, we make sure all water systems throughout the state are keeping their water safe and maintaining their systems in a way that prevents accidents and contamination. I specifically work in Field Services and help with the Operator and Backflow Certification programs. A water system, depending on the population size of the area served, is required to have a Certified Operator oversee the process of providing safe water from deep inside the earth to your home.

Elevated drinking water tank in West Valley City

Elevated drinking water tank in West Valley City

When I process a certification exam, I know I am helping to ensure our water systems will have one more knowledgeable person looking over everything and solving problems that may arise before they can affect public health. When I enter continuing education unit (CEU) courses into our database, I know I am helping keep track of vital trainings that have educated our operators on the most recent technology or safety advancements in the industry. When I process a certification renewal application, I am helping the operators keep up on that continual learning process, making sure they have gone to enough trainings over the past three years to keep their certification current and their knowledge up-to-date.

I myself studied and became certified once I saw the complexities of running a water system and how knowing more about the process would help me do my job even better.

All the little aspects of my job have now painted a picture for me, and I no longer think that clean water comes out of faucets like magic. It requires the technical expertise of many people working together, it requires a lot of equipment and planning, it requires a lot of attention, a lot of water sampling, and a lot of hard work.

Every time I turn on a faucet, I don’t take that water for granted. I now understand the distance each drop had to travel, and the amount of time and energy it took to get it to me in a clean, safe, and drinkable form.

May 7-13 is Drinking Water Week.  The theme this year is “Your water: To know it is to love it!” We encourage everybody to learn more about the people and processes that keep your drinking water clean and safe. Want to know more about the quality of your drinking water in your city or town? Check out your system’s consumer confidence report (CCR), an annual report each community water system provides its customers, on our Waterlink webpage.

I have experience with, and a love for, graphic design, which means I like to mess with how things look and the ease in which things can be understood and communicated visually. Working with computers and technology comes naturally to me. I am currently a writer for where I get to review games and sometimes contribute to other articles, meaning I love writing and creating. My husband is Senior Editor of the site as well, which means we are both serious video game hobbyists. Along with video games, I consume as much media as I can in the form of TV shows, movies, and books. I have three cats in keeping with my lifelong love for animals. I am originally from Boise, Idaho, but I’m loving my life in Utah. I’m excited to work in the Division of Drinking Water and generate new ideas to help communication, efficiency, and productivity at any turn in the road.


This entry was originally published on May 8th, 2017, updated on May 8th, 2017, and posted in news.

DEQ Ombudsman Advocates for the Public, Ensures Fair Outcomes

By Paul Harding

The Utah Department of Environmental (DEQ) strives to provide exceptional service in all we do, but this is especially true in the areas of environmental permitting and inspection. Part of that commitment to exceptional service is responding to concerns or complaints from the public and businesses. That’s where I come in: in addition to my other duties in business assistance, I serve as the DEQ Ombudsman.

DEQ administers state and federal environmental laws relating to air quality, surface water and groundwater quality, drinking water, solid and hazardous waste management, radiation control, and underground storage tanks. These laws require us to issue environmental permits to businesses, local governments, and state and federal facilities to help limit pollution and improve the quality of our air, land and water while balancing economic development. Our scientists and engineers inspect permitted facilities or operations to ensure that regulations are followed and permit conditions are met. DEQ issues thousands of environmental permits and performs a comparable number of inspections each year.

The Ombudsman actively engages the regulated public to assure these services are administered both professionally and fairly. As the DEQ Ombudsman, I receive and investigate complaints made by citizens on potential abuses of discretion or arbitrary or capricious acts of the agency. These complaints could range from the agency failing to issue a permit in a timely manner, failing to enforce a permit or regulation, or an employee failing to act properly during an inspection or site visit. From a small business perspective, an owner may feel that the agency failed to take into account special problems or issues that a small business may have. The Ombudsman’s goal is to be as impartial and neutral as possible in determining whether the agency or the individual’s actions were fair and reasonable, then work to ensure an equitable resolution.

The Ombudsman’s Office recently developed a survey to collect feedback on how our agency is doing. Participation is voluntary and answers are anonymous unless individuals choose to share contact information with me. The intent is to measure professionalism and fairness as well as the effectiveness of our programs. The survey is not intended to measure any sort of frustration with regulations and requirements. It is hoped that the survey will provide us with the metrics we need to identify areas of concern and opportunities for improvement as well as recognize where we approach or meet our goal of exceptional service.

If you have had an interaction with Utah DEQ recently and are interested in helping us improve our programs, please take a few minutes to complete our survey. You should be able to complete the first page of the survey within a few minutes. You are welcome to submit your responses and stop there. However, if you have recently been inspected or been through a permitting process with UDEQ, we hope you will take a few more minutes and answer additional questions to give us a better understanding of those interactions.

If you have comments, concerns or questions and would like to contact me directly, please do so at 801-536-4108 or I look forward to hearing from you and hope that you will work with us to continue to improve our programs and services.

I am a Utah native, and I graduated from BYU with a degree in geology. I have had the privilege of serving the people of Utah for the last 23 years as an environmental scientist for the Utah Department of Environmental (DEQ). I spent my first 17 years as an inspector in the Underground Storage Tank Program. Just over six years ago, I accepted a position in Business Assistance, working in the Office of the Executive Director. I work with businesses in a number of capacities for DEQ, including as the Ombudsman. I’m part of the DEQ Ultimate gang who play Ultimate Frisbee for exercise at lunch. I live in Salt Lake with my husband, Brett, and our three dogs Sarge, Frankie and Bernie.




This entry was originally published on May 1st, 2017 and posted in news.