If you look at the Great Lakes, the Puget Sound, San Francisco Bay or the Florida Everglades, there are huge commissions, huge repositories of information out there. We've never had that for the Great Salt Lake. Nobody has owned that; nobody has owned that problem. —Walt Baker, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality.
SALT LAKE CITY — The state is getting prepared to put the Great Salt Lake on the examination table and run a diagnostic test on its overall health.
Much like a nutritionist who would advise a patient to lay off of sweets or fatty foods for a healthier body, state water quality regulators want to be able to say definitively what the standards are for the Great Salt Lake, to achieve and maintain its optimum health.
"When you look at the health of the lake, what is the metric we use to measure success or failure?" questioned Walt Baker, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality.
"If you look at the Great Lakes, the Puget Sound, San Francisco Bay or the Florida Everglades, there are huge commissions, huge repositories of information out there. We've never had that for the Great Salt Lake. Nobody has owned that; nobody has owned that problem."
There is plenty at stake: the estimated annual economic impact of the lake to Utah is more than 1.3 billion — with millions pouring in from recreation and tourism, the brine shrimp industry and more than a billion from the minerals industries, according to a study commissioned by the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council released earlier this year.
The state's water quality division wants to develop a water quality strategy that for the first time puts in place numeric standards for the level of pollutants or contaminants in the lake, to protect the resource and Utah's dependence on it.
Baker said unlike fresh water bodies that have water quality standards regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Great Salt Lake has none — save a selenium standard developed for concentrations of that mineral in bird tissue — not in the actual water.
"There's a huge void," Baker said, adding that the division has developed narrative standards with an eye toward protecting the lake, but those are subjective and therefore left open to interpretation.
"We do studies to make sure there are no deleterious effects, but we are left to our own devices to come up with our own standards," he said. "We've been able to get by in the past, but the tools we've had in the past are not going to see us into the future."
A narrative standard, for example, may address the undesirability of trash, tires or motor oil in the lake, but it doesn't necessarily set specific limits on contaminants or nutrients such as phosphorus or nitrogen.
Those nutrients, Baker said, are agricultural byproducts or prevalent in organic waste and have significant bearing on water quality.
The need to come up with specific pollutant standards is being driven by the overarching goal to protect the lake's health and at the same allow its economic contribution to the state to continue, he said.
At the same time, the lake boasts an ecosystem that is part of one of world's most important migratory flyways, hosting 7 million to 12 million birds representing 250 species. More than 80 percent of the state's wetlands are adjacent to the lake, serving as critical habitat for birds and bolstering a thriving waterfowl hunting community.
Baker said having the standards in place will help determine if an excess of nutrients is causing a die-off of wetlands or if there are too many metals cycling into the lake.
Richard Bay, general manager of the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, said any limits on contaminants are often a moving target with inherent subjectivity, especially since discharge permits come up for renewal every few years.
His district is still waiting on a discharge permit from water quality regulators, a process that has been going on for three years. Bay was involved with the development and implementation of the selenium standard at the Great Salt Lake for bird tissue and said he appreciates the magnitude of what is being under taken by the division.
"Having gone through that process, I recognize that this water quality strategy is a big idea, a big effort and will take a long time. … It will take years and lots and lots of manpower."
Such efforts, with standards in place, will help shape interaction with the lake for decades to come and should involve robust public involvement, he added.
The division is hosting an open house from 3 to 6 p.m. Tuesday to share information with the public about its strategy, an event that includes an informational video, posters and employees who will be available to answer questions. The event will be in the boardroom of the state Department of Environmental Quality, 195 N. 1950 West.
Comments on the strategy are being accepted through July 15, and Baker said ideally, the strategy will be presented to the Water Quality Board for adoption by sometime in late fall.
Those comments may be submitted electronically via email to email@example.com, or faxed to 801-536-4301. They may also be mailed to: PO Box 144870, Salt Lake City, UT 84114, or hand delivered to 195 North 1950 West, Salt Lake City, Utah 84116