There needs to be an investment in our quality of life and part of that investment is to preserve our water resources, preserve our water quality, and this project aims to do that. —Walt Baker, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah regulators agreed this week to tackle a $49 million pollution problem at Echo and Rockport reservoirs to protect fish populations and ultimately safeguard the water quality for more than a half million people.
Shrinking oxygen levels at both reservoirs are threatening the cold water fisheries, elevating the bodies of water to an action list for improvements that must be undertaken for impaired waterways.
"The question is if the state is shooting beyond the mark," said Walt Baker, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality. "The answer is an unequivocal no. These are state water quality standards we are protecting."
Baker unveiled the plan to a committee of lawmakers last week as required by a 2011 state law and brought it before the Utah Water Quality Board on Wednesday. Members voted unanimously to go ahead with the nutrient pollution plan and corresponding regulations, but agreed to delay the effective date to Aug. 1.
The fixes are aiming for 35 percent reduction in nutrient and phosphorus pollution at the reservoirs, which are part of a water supply and delivery system serving 600,000 people in northern Utah.
"There needs to be an investment in our quality of life and part of that investment is to preserve our water resources, preserve our water quality, and this project aims to do that," he said Wednesday.
Although naturally occurring, too much phosphorus and nitrogen cause excessive algae growth. As the algae dies off and decomposes, that process robs water of life-giving oxygen.
Baker told lawmakers the problem is compounded by people, noting that Utah's population growth is at 126 percent since 1990 and in Summit County it is even worse.
"It is more than double that. We are having a population explosion, and with that increased pollutants that are going into our water bodies that then warrant increased action on our part," he said.
A study determined it will take $20 million in upgrades to wastewater treatment plants — most notably the system operated by Snyderville Basin Reclamation — and another $29 million for voluntary measures to address pollution caused by agricultural and other sources.
"The do-nothing option in protecting these waters is not viable," Baker said. "Our population growth will not allow these water bodies to recuperate and sustain their uses if we do not take action. So we've got to be vigilant, we've got to make an investment, and we have to take action to protect our waters."
The impairment has nothing to do with actual drinking water standards, but it does threaten the major "beneficial use" of those waters — to sustain cold water fisheries.
Over the last several years, the drought's depletion of water has not helped.
"It is in the summer months that the waters struggle, particularly August," he said. As reservoirs shrink toward the end of the growing season, less water means less opportunity for oxygen.
"More water ameliorates the pollution," he said.
Michael Luers, general manager of the Snyderville Basin Water Reclamation District, said his agency has been working cooperatively with state water regulators and is prepared to move forward with $19 million in upgrades to a system initially put in place in the 1980s.
"Certainly these type of limitations (on nutrient pollution) were never dreamed of when it was built," he said. "But we take full responsibility for our part in this."
Baker stressed fixes over the long-term include voluntary measures to address pollution from flood irrigation, agriculture operations and septic tanks fields, which contaminate groundwater supplies.