Utah's waterways flush with pollution problem — and it could cost residents

Published: Monday, May 5 2014 5:50 p.m. MDT

Water is processed Monday, May 5, 2014, at the Central Davis Sewer District in Kaysville.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The biggest polluter of Utah's rivers, streams and lakes is not an industrial plant or expansive mining operation, but us — with the flush of a toilet.

Nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen in Utah are requiring a costly fix — as much as $1.2 billion — to wastewater treatment plants so these pollutants are reduced.

In a phased approach aimed at phosphorus, water quality regulators are mulling upgrades that would amount to an extra flush fee on the monthly sewer bill to reduce phosphorus. The naturally occurring element, if excessive, leads to fish kills and chokes out other aquatic life.

"The pollutant loading of phosphorus and nitrogen is going to continue unabated unless we take a pre-emptive strike now," said Walt Baker, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality. "This will be the biggest water quality initiative in Utah in 40 years. … The do-nothing alternative is not an option."

Among the first steps in this process is the proposal by the Utah Water Quality Board to establish a numerical limit on the amount of phosphorus the largest wastewater treatment systems can discharge to state waters.

Ultimately, this phase would cost an average of $1.34 more a month for a typical household on upgrades to the more than 30 publicly owned treatment plants in the state, as well as two large lagoon-style systems.

Leland Myers, a Utah Water Quality Board member who serves on the working group dealing with nutrient pollution, said those treatment plants will face upgrades in the $100 million range.

"This is an intermediate step," said Myers, who manages the Central Davis Sewer treatment plant. "Some people are happy about it; some people are not."

Some treatment plants, for example, argue the fixes may be prohibitively expensive for the results that may be achieved, and an unfair burden to hoist on ratepayers for a pollution problem not yet ordered curtailed by the federal government.

In the case of Salt Lake City — which has a treatment plant that discharges to the Great Salt Lake — public utilities director Jeff Niermeyer wonders if the science supports a numerical standard for the unique ecosystem of the saltwater body.

The plant would face $30 million in improvements to meet the standard, yet Niermeyer said it is difficult to tell if the Great Salt Lake ecoystem is impacted like freshwater bodies.

"We applaud the state for going through with this effort because nutrient pollution is a big concern," he said. "We're just not sure if the science is there for the Great Salt Lake."

In terms of the freshwater problems nutrient pollution poses, Baker said it is better to act now, absent a federal hammer, than to wait for the EPA to get involved.

"Nutrients are the biggest source of pollution in the state, and it is getting worse," he said. "If we are going to attack this problem, we have to stem it at its root cause."

The Utah Water Quality Board unanimously endorsed testing the waters of public opinion on a phosphorus limit at its last meeting April 30 in St. George. The proposal will go out to public comment for 60 days beginning June 1, and a series of public meetings will be held to air details about the implications of the possible new regulation.

Phosphorus is a naturally occurring, non-metallic element and the second most abundant mineral in the body. It's naturally secreted in waste, but wastewater treatment systems have traditionally not been set up to remove it.

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