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.
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."
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