SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is staring at a $1.2 billion-dollar water pollution problem that state regulators say is the most severe issue they have confronted since the federal Clean Water Act was passed more than 40 years ago.
The culprits are phosphorus and nitrogen, naturally occurring nutrients necessary in the right quantities to sustain critical aquatic life in waterways. An excess, however, results in prolific algae blooms that rob the water of life-giving oxygen.
Walt Baker, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality, detailed the pressing problem this week in a meeting of the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee, where he told legislators Utah should act to take care of the problem now, rather than wait until the federal government forces a solution.
"Our thinking is if we allow the EPA to come in and establish a criteria, (the solution) will be unreachable and unaffordable."
Baker said a $450 million investment in technology to upgrade wastewater treatment plants that discharge to rivers would be paid for by an average $3.40 monthly increase to Utah households. Those properties serviced by treatment plants that already have the technology in place, such as the Jordan Basin Water Reclamation Facility, likely would not see the increase, he said.
Baker said the state could go “full throttle” with a $1.2 billion investment or take a minimal approach that would still cost $220 million. The state ultimately settled on middle ground, with a $450 million solution financed over 20 years.
Nutrient pollution is a far-reaching problem that has resulted in the death of cattle and despoiled some of Utah's water bodies.
Utah Lake, for example, is loaded with nutrients that create its green hue, Baker said. An overload of nutrients threatens critical outdoor recreation activities such as fishing and boating because water can become murky and cloudy and not support fish populations. Utah fishing contributed more than $451 million to the economy in 2011, according to data compiled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Baker said the EPA has developed a strategy for states to deal with the nutrient pollution problem by establishing a numeric criteria — a pollution standard that quantifies what is acceptable and what is in violation. Three-fifths of states across the country have moved ahead with developing the standard, while the remainder have done nothing. Utah is moving ahead with developing a standard but is not there yet, he said.
"If it is not affordable, it is not worth doing. It has to be defensible, it has got to work and it has to be flexible. It should be reasonable and within reach. We have got to have everyone at the table."
Causes of nutrient pollution are varied. Wastewater treatment plants are part of the problem and stormwater runoff is factor, but agriculture is a chief contributor.
Baker's agency has been working with the Utah Department of Agriculture to develop ways for farmers and ranchers to shave the nutrients their operations put into the water.
Leonard Blackham, Utah's agriculture commissioner, told committee members that the department has already inventoried animal feed lots, for example, in terms of how close they are to water resources. Another idea is to use environmental stewardship grants to help pay for upgrades to farming and ranching methods. An operation that has completed those steps would receive a stamp of approval from the state.
One committee member, Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, expressed skepticism at the need for spending so much to take action on a problem that the EPA hasn’t yet mandated that states address.
Baker said the EPA did step in and establish numeric criteria for Florida after a citizens group filed a lawsuit over its dirty waters. And Rep. Mike Noel, who is manager of the Kane County Water Conservancy District and a cattle rancher, said it would be foolhardy to do nothing.
“This problem is not just in our state or even this country; it is a worldwide issue,” he said. “We are either going to do it or we will have the EPA in our backyard doing it.”
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