Water Quality Management Strategy for Wetlands: Wetlands Program

Photo by Wayne Wurtsbaugh.

The wetlands surrounding the Great Salt Lake are internationally important in providing habitat used by millions of birds. Historically, Utah’s Division of Water Quality (DWQ) has protected some of these wetlands through its water quality standards program. It has become increasingly apparent that a new management approach within that program is needed if the aquatic life and aquatic-dependent life of Great Salt Lake wetlands is to be sufficiently protected.

DWQ plans to use the watershed approach as a way of increasing the effectiveness of the Agency’s work to protect and restore wetlands of the Great Salt Lake. Use of the approach has two objectives. The first objective is to apply the best available science to refine Utah’s existing water quality standards and monitoring strategy to properly reflect the characteristics of wetland ecosystems. The second objective is to create a DWQ partnership with community stakeholders, federal and state agency staff to protect wetlands through adaptive management. Adaptive management includes the systematic reporting of ecosystem health.

This Prospectus is an invitation for community stakeholders and agency staff to join in a partnership to protect the health of wetlands of the Great Salt Lake. The Prospectus will be revised over time to take into account a full range of stakeholder interests. It also will serve as a way of reporting progress made toward implementation of successful restoration and treatment practices for wetlands protection.

The DWQ and its partners have expended considerable time and resources to build an ecological understanding of wetlands around the Great Salt Lake and how they support designated aquatic life uses. Uses include the functioning of wetlands as habitat for waterfowl, shorebirds and other water-oriented wildlife including the necessary aquatic organisms in their food chain.

The new scientific understanding is being used to develop ways of reporting the health of the aquatic resource and attainment of designated uses. New information also will be used to design ways for evaluating the effectiveness of management practices and treatment systems. Those practices and systems will be needed to sustain valued wetlands alongside the open water ecosystems of the Lake.

Past Approach

Example of Impoundment Class Wetlands and Assessment Sites

The past approach of applying existing water quality standards to the Great Salt Lake wetlands is problematic for two reasons. First, the standards that are specifically applied to wetlands are based on the geographical location of the aquatic resource rather than their ecological characteristics. For example, a set of wetland specific standards are attributed to state Wildlife Management Areas and the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Numerous classes of wetland types are located within those areas, each class with its own biota and distinct ecosystem processes. The ecologically distinct character of each of those wetland classes needs to be considered when developing defensible standards, assessment methods and protection practices. Also, the wetland areas described in current standards represent just a subset of the wetlands around the Great Salt Lake. The quality of some wetlands outside of the described areas may actually be more at risk because they are not actively managed for wildlife conservation.

The second problem with current water quality standards is the types of criteria used to assess and protect ecosystem condition or health. For example, the current water quality standards have a numeric criterion for dissolved oxygen (DO). The criterion is exceeded within many “impoundment” class wetlands, yet there is evidence suggesting that most of these wetlands continue to support their designated uses. Impoundment wetlands are typically associated with wildlife management areas and duck clubs. Conversely, lake “fringe” wetlands that are sometimes sustained by discharges from wastewater treatment facilities rarely show an exceedance of DO criteria. Irrespective of both situations, wetland biota has adapted to environmental conditions with wide fluctuations in DO. The measure, by itself, is not a robust indicator of wetland condition.

The Watershed Approach

In simplest terms, the watershed approach involves (a) building program partnerships, (b) setting broad-scale ecosystem goals and (c) using monitoring and assessment information to inform decision-making based on established goals. In contrast with the past approach, the new way signals to stakeholders that sufficient information now exists to move forward with incremental improvements to water quality planning and implementation practices, as they relate to wetland protection. The results of future monitoring activity will allow DWQ and its partners to evaluate the effectiveness of those planning and implementation practices. Refinements will be made as necessary though the process of learning by doing and experimentation to develop solutions.

In addition, new research will be encouraged to help partners better understand the many ecological nuances of the Great Salt Lake and its wetlands. Effectiveness monitoring and research will drive the adaptive management process needed to protect wetlands of the Great Salt Lake.

DWQ is working with its partners to accomplish five near-term tasks toward implementation of the watershed approach. Completion of these tasks, in an iterative manner, will provide all stakeholders with assurance that progress is being made to assess and protect Great Salt Lake wetlands in a comprehensive way.


1. Develop monitoring and assessment methods for wetland ecosystems.

Monitoring and assessment methods and a survey design are needed to report the condition of all wetlands of the Great Salt Lake, and report the effectiveness of management activity. Work will initially focus on building methods to assess the biological condition of impoundment class wetlands.

2. Adopt an assessment (decision) framework.

The Assessment Framework will describe how wetland monitoring and assessment data are used with water quality criteria for the categorical reporting of use attainment, including support of waterfowl, shorebird and other water bird habitat. The adoption of narrative criteria requires that a robust monitoring and assessment framework be implemented to meet water quality reporting needs. The Framework will explicitly describe how assessed wetlands will be categorized in terms of their “water quality standard attainment status.”

3. Revise existing water quality standards.

The current numeric criteria will remain in place with the exception of numeric DO and pH criteria for impoundment class wetlands. The numeric criteria for those parameters will be changed to protective narrative criteria for that wetland class. The standards revisions will be supported with documentation. The documentation will explain to stakeholders the technical circumstances of the change and how the narrative criteria will adequately protect designated uses in an accountable way. Other refinements to water quality standards will be made as new monitoring and assessment data become available.

4. Implement a water quality management strategy for Great Salt Lake wetlands.

The water quality management strategy will describe how assessed wetlands will be managed given their reported categorical status. Attention will be directed at solving identified problems as well as examining options to reduce the risk of future wetland degradation. In both cases, DWQ will approach problem solving through adaptive management. Adaptive management is based on the synchronized deployment of best management practices and treatments along side an effectiveness monitoring program. The effectiveness monitoring program is managed with a commitment to revise practices as needed to meet water quality objectives. Those objectives include meeting the goals of the Clean Water Act and compliance with applicable administrative rules and requirements. For example, the strategy will explain how new narrative criteria will be taken into account by DWQ when evaluating existing point source discharge permits and when issuing new permits.

5. Outline a comprehensive Great Salt Lake Water Quality Management Strategy.

The 2014 GSL Water Quality Management Strategy highlights how the use of the watershed approach for wetlands and water quality management is coordinated with UDWQ’s other Great Salt Lake assessment initiatives the watershed approach for wetlands and water quality management is coordinated with DWQ’s other Great Salt Lake assessment initiatives.

A Partnership for Wetland Assessment and Protection

The tasks listed above will be implemented in a collaborative manner with many opportunities for public input. Stakeholder collaboration will undoubtedly improve the quality of the work and ensure that the concerns of all stakeholders are addressed. Stakeholder collaboration also will allow all parties to see how their protection, conservation and stewardship work is complementary toward meeting a common set of environmental goals in support of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem.

For more information, contact:

Becka Downard
Utah Division of Water Quality
195 North 1950 West
Salt Lake City, Utah 84116
(801) 536-4340