SALT LAKE CITY — The state agency in charge of safeguarding Utah's air, land and water from environmental threats celebrated an array of small victories in 2017 that likely went unnoticed by much of the public.
Last fall, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality initiated a clean-car program for Cache Valley and Franklin County, Idaho, an area that regularly fails to meet federal clean air standards in the winter.
Through financial assistance and other help, the agency helped motorists identify pollution-problem cars and offered rebates to fix the issues.
Farther south, the agency chipped in $14.2 million to the Moab Wastewater Treatment Plant that was struggling with capacity and aging issues, halting its ability to handle human waste from nearby national parks. The state water quality board approved a loan to help offset the upfront investment.
Water quality regulators also worked with federal and private organizations to restore blue ribbon fishery conditions at Chalk Creek. The remediation division partnered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to transform the historic Ogden Stockyards, which is poised to develop into 50-acre business park and recreational attraction.
"To continue to protect public health and our environment as Utah’s population grows but agency budgets do not, we simply must become more efficient, providing more of our vital services without increasing costs," Alan Matheson, executive director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, said in the agency's 2017 State of the Environment Report released Friday.
"We are driven to improve health, well-being and economic opportunity by cleaning our air, land and water, all without increasing the burden on Utah’s taxpayers. And that is exactly what we are doing," Matheson said.
While the agency is able to note the day-in and day-out accomplishments, the annual report makes note of those larger environmental challenges that dominated the news and created a springboard for action.
Over the summer, much of the state was impacted with unprecedented and long-lasting algal bloom outbreaks, not only affecting typical locations such as Utah Lake but high mountain reservoirs such as Deer Creek and urban waterways like the 21st Street Pond in Ogden.
The agency obtained sophisticated data sondes to collect algae concentrations in real time and better predict when an outbreak might occur. A $1 million grant from the state Water Quality Resources Board is helping to lay the groundwork to assess appropriate nutrient limits to help curb the problem.
A report summarizing the findings of that probe is expected this month.
Utah air quality regulators joined with federal partners and multiple academic institutions to launch the first national study to specifically measure the type and concentrations of air pollutants trapped in wintertime inversions along the Wasatch Front.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration used a plane loaded with thousands of pounds of special instrumentation in a series of flights, including touch-and-gos at regional airports to get an accurate reading of the chemistry involved in inversions.
Measuring stations on the ground also collected data on a variety of hazardous air pollutants, as well as concentrations of wood smoke — an issue particularly noteworthy in Cache Valley. The data from that study is expected to drive the parameters for more local-guided research specific to Utah's pollution problems and unique topography.
Upon urging of the EPA in the aftermath of massive lead contamination in Flint, Michigan, Utah's drinking water division rolled out a voluntary initiative to encourage lead testing in Utah's public schools in early 2017. The impetus of the expansive project is for drinking water regulators, health departments and schools to test systems for identification of problems and remediate any contamination.
The environmental agency set up a data base to report any exceedances and log schools' individual responses to fix the problem, such as changing out faucets. Nearly 80 percent of schools submitted some sort of data in the lead testing program.
At the Utah Division of Radiation Control and Waste Management, regulators there continued to work on an assessment regarding the potential disposal of radioactive material in the western desert of Utah, conducted a review of possible new uranium mining activity in the state, and continued its oversight of the remediation of the former 1,700-acre Geneva Mill site in Utah County.3 comments on this story
While Utah is likely to battle new environmental challenges through its regulatory programs, much of what happened in 2017 will be research and efforts that carry into this year — more self-reporting on lead in school drinking water, mitigating and responding to harmful algal bloom outbreaks, and continuing to put the clamp on air pollution sources.
The state is continuing to look for ways to boost an aging water infrastructure, monitor and reduce emissions in the Uinta Basin, and boost water quality in the state's streams and lakes.
As old industrial sites give way to removal of contaminants and the birthplace of new development, the agency will also work with the EPA and cities to ensure safe conditions for the changing landscape.