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Ravell Call, Deseret News
Mike Freeman of the U.S. Geological Survey prepares instrumentation that measures water quality, and specifically nitrates, at Goggin Drain near the Great Salt Lake on Monday, Aug. 8, 2016.

MAGNA — Hydrologists from Utah and California lowered a sophisticated water quality monitoring device into the murky waters at the Jordan River surplus canal and are now waiting on the story it tells.

The story could be a short one, with measurements that don’t give them an idea of what is happening with the water.

They hope, however, that the story unveiled by the device is one with layers of information that better informs them of the distribution of nitrates in the canal and how they affect water quality.

“We want to know the what, when, why and how of it. And the how of it is the most difficult thing,” said Brian Downing, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey from Sacramento, California.

Downing and Utah hydrologists are embarking on field surveys this week to map nutrient density and distribution in three key waterways: the Jordan surplus canal at Goggin Drain, the Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake.

Monday, they set up a suite of measurement devices at the Goggin Drain along the canal.

The devices will provide an intense schedule of high frequency measurements — as many as 30 every 15 minutes — so hydrologists can then crunch the data in a subsequent analysis.

They will be able to look at the difference in nitrate counts from night to day and compare that against water temperature, flow and other characteristics of the water.

“The quicker you sample with more frequency over time the more you get a handle on it,” said Chris Shope, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Salt Lake City.

“Conditions can change rapidly.”

The fixed measuring station at the Goggin Drain is intended to take the “pulse” of the water’s health in one location to better understand algal bloom formation.

On Tuesday, the crews will set out on a daylong mapping trip on the Great Salt Lake to get a picture of nutrient density and distribution on a spatial scale.

On his laptop in the field, Downing was able to bring up such a map the agency produced that tracked chlorophyll in the San Francisco Bay Delta. The map turned out to be a powerful tool for water quality scientists looking to find out where impairment existed.

Shope said the more information scientists have about nutrients in waterways, the more responsive agencies can be on key management issues.

Utah has struggled this summer with nutrient pollution — with blue-green algae that infested Utah Lake and spread to the Jordan River. The algae, called cyanobacteria, can produce toxins that are harmful to the health of people and animals.

Scofield Reservoir and Payson Lake have also struggled with toxic algal blooms.

“These problems are not new, but the more sampling we do across space and time gives us a better handle on how conditions affect algal blooms,” Shope said.

On Wednesday, the team will map Utah Lake, which was closed for two weeks due to the algae problem.

Scientists blamed the mid-July outbreak on too much of the nutrient phosphorus, low lake levels and hot, sunny conditions.

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