SALT LAKE CITY — That green, floating gunk sometimes hugging the shoreline of Utah's waterways is more than just displeasing to the eye — it's an indicator of water impaired by an over-abundance of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen.
Algae blooms and the presence of cyanobacteria — a photosynthetic bacteria sometimes called blue-green algae — are among the symptoms of a worldwide water quality issue identified as one of the most costly, but urgent environmental problems that needs to be addressed.
According to the EPA:
50 percent of U.S. streams have medium to high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen
78 percent of surveyed coastal waters have evidence of plant overgrowth, indicative of a nutrient problem
Nitrate drinking water violations have doubled in eight years. Nitrate is a common groundwater pollutant arising from fertilizer, septic systems or manure storage.
Utah is joining other states across the country in the development of a numeric nutrient criteria for its streams and lakes as part of an EPA requirement to address the problem, which is caused by habitat modification, agriculture and discharge by wastewater treatment plants.
State water quality monitors want to know to what extent the appearance of a lake or stream impacts a user's likelihood to boat, fish, splash or wade, and also if that appearance is important enough to loosen up a user's pocketbook to fix it.
"We want to know how it affects people's decisions — including what are the nutrient-related pollution costs to Utah citizens and what people are willing to pay to fix them," said Jeffrey Ostermiller, the state's chief of water quality management.
To that end, the state Division of Water Quality is surveying 6,000 Utah households and targeted water-recreation groups to tap the importance residents place on good water quality for recreational use, enjoyment and quality of life for future generations.
The survey is being coordinated by the University of Wyoming with results analyzed and summarized by a team at Utah State University.
Ostermiller said the development of the survey has been a partnership that has unveiled surprises along the way.
"It's been very insightful. It links the science with the economics. We speak two different languages; measure things in different units."
The results, however, should help the state chart a clear path in its development of numeric nutrient criteria and a plan of attack to reduce the pollution that threatens prime fishing spots and boating destinations.
Ostermiller and others acknowledge it's not going to be a simple or inexpensive problem to fix and it's likely to not go unnoticed on household water bills.
The surveys are a follow-up to a 2010 report by the Division of Water Quality that found after extensive research, analysis and input from 30 publicly operated wastewater treatment plants, it could cost as much as $1 billion in upgrades or outright replacements of systems to meet new, stringent standards.
Those standards would greatly curb the discharge of nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, which cause the excessive growth of oxygen-robbing algae and lead to dead zones in waterways.
Entire areas like that have cropped up in the Gulf of Mexico, the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay and in coastal Florida.
Because nutrient pollution is a downstream problem in nature — pollutants build as streams and rivers flow to their final outlet — the EPA reasoned that to tackle the problem on a national level has to be state-by-state coordinated front.
The mandate in the regulatory arena comes even as a legal donnybrook continues to unfold in Florida, where environmentalists sued the federal government to force a standard to be put in place for that state.
As a result of the standard, Florida state, local governments, industry and wastewater treatment plants filed multiple legal challenges, saying the standard is unrealistic and too costly to meet.
Ostermiller says Utah is already working with numerous groups such as the agricultural industry and others to address nutrient overload. And while wastewater treatment plants have systems in place to remove nutrients, upgrades or new systems would remove more of them.
"The writing's kind of on the wall," Ostermiller said. "All states are in various stages of developing nutrient criteria. In our region, the surrounding states, Colorado is proposing criteria. They are at the tail end of where we hope to be a year from now."
Ostermiller says Utah's goal is to craft a nutrient criteria plan that is workable and avoids the pitfalls of Florida.
"We have tried to draft an approach that avoids as many of those problems that we can."