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

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

While the nutrients occur naturally in aquatic systems, an excess of phosphorus and nitrogen create algae blooms. As the algae dies off, it sucks the oxygen out of the water, compromising its ability to sustain fish populations or other aquatic life.

Nutrient pollution comes from a variety of sources. It's a key ingredient in fertilizer and can make its way to streams and waterways through urban runoff. It is the natural byproduct of cattle ranching and farming, but, Myers said, Utah's agricultural community is also taking steps to reduce its impacts through this year's implementation of an environmental stewardship program.

"If you have a nutrient problem in the mountains, it is probably an ag problem," Myers said. "If you have a nutrient problem in central Utah, it is probably an ag problem. But if you have a nutrient problem along the Wasatch Front, it is probably more people than ag. Without addressing both of them, you are not going to achieve significant reductions."

Baker said the upgrades that result from the proposed technology-based limit will decrease by 50 percent the amount of phosphorus that is entering Utah waterways from treatment plants.

"We will buy ourselves some time," he said.

The proposed reduction plan for phosphorus has a five-year implementation window, with the first three years set aside for plants to prove their case for a possible exception to the rule. After that, two years are given for the upgrades to be made and the plant to be operating at reduced discharge levels for phosphorus.

Baker said he believes it is a workable approach for reducing the nutrient given the magnitude of the problem.

"Since the federal Clean Water Act came into existence in 1972, we have had a 240 percent increase in our population in Utah and a commensurate increase in the pollution going into our streams and lakes," he said.

Baker said over the next 16 years, Utah's growing population is projected to add another 50 million gallons of treated wastewater a day to the state's streams and reservoirs.

"We have to stay ahead of it, or what will happen is what has happened with our air quality. We just don't want there be an absolute precipice that we fall over and we have to do something," he said. "It is a measured approach to doing something now that will buy us some time to develop a standard protective of our waters."

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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