Utah Lake is no stranger to harmful algae blooms. These toxic, smelly cyanobacteria have made headlines as they have become more rampant in the past few years and made hundreds of people sick, in addition to causing environmental devastation to the lake itself.
But with this notoriety, why have we not seen any fixes for the problem? Shockingly, there is very little being done to minimize the repercussions that these harmful algae blooms have on Utah Lake. In fact, there is even a privately funded “Utah Lake Restoration Project” in the works that plans to develop islands made of dredged sediments smack in the middle of Utah Lake, where people can buy waterfront homes. A further look into the issue shows it is far more complicated than we know.
Harmful algae blooms, or HABs, are toxic cyanobacteria that congregate on the surface of the water and feed off different nutrients, most notably phosphorus. Harmful algae bloom formation is caused by nutrient pollution, which acts as a catalyst for the naturally occurring cyanobacteria to grow rapidly. This consequently creates algae that produce cyanotoxins with the potential to kill humans and other animals. That being said, HABs are a devastating environmental issue for Utah Lake that can destroy ecosystems and animal populations and impede recreation accessibility. However, efforts to deal with the problem by environmental agencies here in Utah seem minimal at best.
I spoke with an environmental scientist for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food. When I asked about current or potential research of the HAB problem in Utah Lake, I was told, “There is little funding for these projects and few principal investigators interested in doing the work for tiny pots of funding. We have started some initial discussions with the EPA about conducting the kind of research that we would need, but it is far too early to know whether they are interested or not yet.”
I also spoke to Benjamin Holcomb, who is the coordinator of HAB programs for the Utah Division of Water Quality, who told me about a study the Utah Department of Water Quality did in 2007, showing that the biggest contributor to phosphorus input into Utah Lake was wastewater treatment plants, not fertilizer runoff, as the public has been taught since this problem first arose.
The Utah Lake Restoration Project could be a viable solution, as its website shows plans to implement new treatment facilities around Utah Lake. However, the Provo wastewater treatment facility near Utah Lake is in the process of renovations because of the Utah Water Quality Board's adoption of a new rule in 2015 that mandates that wastewater treatment facilities can only output 1 milligram of phosphorus per liter of water. The Provo treatment facility currently outputs 2 to 3 milligrams of phosphorus per liter.5 comments on this story
This facility is aging and in desperate need of upgrades to adhere to the new environmental standards, but these come at a massive cost. In 2017, the city of Provo asked for a grant of variance to the deadline for these phosphorus output limits to be implemented, stating, “Such improvements cannot be completed prior to January 1, 2020, despite Provo’s diligence.”
With this many complications related to upgrading the old wastewater treatment plant, why would the privately funded Utah Lake Restoration Project not work with Provo to create a new, environmentally safe treatment plant to begin restoration of Utah Lake?