SALT LAKE CITY — A committee of lawmakers is deciding how much legislative oversight it wants over potential costs to clean the state's waterways of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus or ammonia.
The Utah Water Quality Board has passed rules related to a phosphorus limit applicable to publicly owned wastewater treatment plants, and regulators are working on site-specific standards for ammonia.
But if those rules result in high costs for treatment plants, the Legislature could put the kibosh on the upgrades.
"At what point do we want to have formal legislative approval for a specific item," questioned Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem.
A couple of legislative proposals were discussed last week in the interim meeting of the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment committee.
Nutrient pollution in waterways is a problem across the nation, contributing to the formation of algal blooms that kill fish, livestock and pose potentially deadly risks to people.
Utah Lake has annual bouts of algal blooms that result in closures and health advisories. The excess nutrients come from human activity such as urban runoff, agricultural operations and discharges from wastewater treatment plants. Seven plants discharge into Utah Lake.
Competing versions of the legislation discussed Wednesday would require natural resources committee approval or even the full legislative body if there is a $10 million expenditure by treatment plants that is attributable to the nutrient rule.
Such an approval process has the potential to delay multiple clean water projects across the state as plant operators configure costs and push for a project review by lawmakers.
Erica Gaddis, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality, said she welcomes a review of the rules.
"We have no intention of proposing standards that don't make sense and are not scientifically defensible," she said. "We recognize these standards have a real cost to communities."
Prior to the 2015 adoption of a technology-based limit for phosphorus, Gaddis said the state spent five years meeting with treatment plant operators and others in a public outreach effort.
Many large facilities are due for upgrades anyway because they are nearing the end of their operational life, she said.
Salt Lake City, for example, is spending $250 million in an overhaul of its plant. The redesign will allow it to meet the new phosphorus standard, but that alone is not what is driving the upgrade, she said.
"The treatment plant is (one of) the oldest in the state of Utah. It was built in the ’60s and is due for an upgrade," she said. "We have aging and growing communities. It is important to recognize that an important part of that infrastructure is treating that water after it leaves our home."
Leland Myers, of the Wasatch Front Water Council representing publicly owned water treatment plants, said that organization is comfortable with either version of the legislation that requires at least some level of oversight by lawmakers.
While the costs for Salt Lake City aren't insurmountable, that might not be the case in smaller communities, he said.
Sen. Dave Hinkins, R-Orangeville, worried aloud that rural cities might have to bear excessive costs for treatment plant upgrades.
"For those on the Wasatch Front these aren't big numbers, but for small communities, this is a big deal. I would like to make the comment that these are extraordinarily big numbers for rural communities."
The water quality division is developing a site-specific ammonia standard after deferring to adopt a new rule by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued in 2013.
Instead, Utah is establishing a limit for each water body that receives discharged wastewater.
Staff is working with the Central Valley Water Reclamation Facility for a standard at Millcreek, where it discharges, that should save it millions in potential upgrades, Gaddis said.
"They will still have to spend some …but we are fully committed to implementing standards that make sense and don't impose unnecessary costs to the public," Gaddis said.