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Algae Bloom May Spur New Interest In Solving Utah's Nutrient Problems

Ben Holcomb, Utah Department of Environmental Quality
This summer's blue green algae bloom on Utah Lake is surpassing another worrisome bloom two years ago.

Environmental officials can’t say when the algal blooms that are poisoning local lakes and streams might fade. But there are already signs this summer’s bacteria episode will have lingering impacts on state policies.

Three years ago water pollution officials floated the idea of a “toilet tax.” They wanted to raise around $10 million a year to help pay for studying nutrients, which are basically pollutants from sewage and farm runoff. They wanted to know how to starve the kind of toxic algae that feasts on excess phosphorous and nitrogen in wastewater.

“Yeah- that didn’t go very far,” says Wayne Wurtsbaugh, a limnologist who’s familiar with the problem.

He recalls research showing that Utah Lake is thick with nutrients from toilets, kitchen sinks and dishwater drains. The valley’s wastewater treatment plants aren’t equipped to trap those nutrients, so cyanobacteria can thrive and multiply in the right conditions. Now concentrations in some places are over a thousand times the World Health Organization’s health-impacts threshold, and hundreds of people say it’s made them sick. Wurtsbaugh suspects the valley’s growing population is only making the problem worse.

“We’re putting more and more fertilizer into the lake,” he says, “and that allows more and more algae to grow.”

Water pollution professionals aren’t surprised that toxic algae blooms are happening in Utah.

“We haven’t done anything to address the root cause of the problem,” says Walt Baker, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality. “We’re going to get more of the same until we have an aggressive action plan that will help us get out of the woods.”

Baker’s agency is taking comments through August 9 on water quality plans that include cleanup strategies.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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