Toxic Times | News | Salt Lake City Weekly

Toxic Times 

There's a little bit of us all in the recent algal bloom at Utah Lake.

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Like the sludge of a toxic winter inversion along the Wasatch Front, the thick soup of algae that recently clogged Utah Lake acted as a stark visual reminder that we humans do not tread lightly upon the resources our lives require.

During the lake's 14-day closure, pictures of the algae slurry spread across the globe. Wired magazine even penned a story with the headline, "Utah Lake's Poop-Driven Algal Bloom is a Crappy Situation."

While algal blooms and the seeds that breed them—nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen—are nothing new to Utah Lake, the size and toxicity of this particular bloom was unprecedented. And while the ever-brightening sun and global warming play an integral role in helping to reduce snowpacks and penetrate the shallow waters of Utah Lake to help give birth to algae, the humans who inhabit Utah also contribute mightily to the problem.

The largest source of phosphorus pumped into Utah Lake arrives courtesy of the eight wastewater treatment plants that dot its banks. Pretty much every single flush of the toilet in Utah County ends up—after being treated—in the lake. Likewise, the bulk of wastewater in the Salt Lake Valley is processed and disposed of by four treatment plants into the Jordan River, which is born in Utah Lake.

That both Utah Lake and the Jordan River aren't gems in the state's quiver of natural resources has for decades confounded some environmental groups and recreation lovers.

The highly visual nature of the algal bloom, though, like Utah's polluted air, is a great reminder, some say, that Utahns ought to be doing more to care for their environment.

"The visibility of the whole thing is certainly dramatic," says Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. "The algae bloom should be a stark reminder, easily visualized by anybody, of the climate crisis threatening basic life support systems. It threatens our air, it threatens our water, it threatens our food supply."

Ben Holcomb, an environmental scientist with the Utah Division of Water Quality, says the algal bloom was unlike anything witnessed before on the lake. Like Moench, he says it appears as though the bloom—which prompted more than 500 people to contact the Utah Poison Control Center during the lake's closure—can thank rising temperatures as a contributing factor.

Utah officials, Holcomb says, haven't needed to be overly concerned with algal blooms until recently. While nutrient levels in the lake have been high for decades, and the lake has always had shallow portions which can help breed algae, he says a few recent developments have played a key role in the large algal bloom.


Among them is a string of light snowpacks. In dry years, he says, more water is held back in mountain reservoirs like Jordanelle and Deer Creek. That means less water tumbles down the Provo River into Utah Lake. At the same time, businesses and municipalities with water rights downstream from Utah Lake (downstream is the Jordan River), still need water. And with warmer winters, the water in Utah Lake freezes less, and is exposed to more sunlight.

"Utah Lake, in a sense, is being pinched from both ends, where it's not receiving much and it's delivering a lot," Holcomb says. "As you draw the water down, making things more shallow, making things warmer and concentrating the nutrients that are there, we're just kind of adding insult to injury."

Since Holcomb doesn't control the sun's thermometer or the winter's ability to create snow, he says state officials have eyed stormwater runoff and the high nutrient levels spewing from wastewater treatment plants as areas that can be improved.

The Division of Water Quality has given notice to water treatment plants that by 2020, they need add new technology that will allow them to discharge less nutrient-laden water into the state's waterways.

"The significant source that we're keying in on, and not solely, we're keying in on the wastewater treatment upgrades," Holcomb says. "There's a large number of them that need to be upgraded to, in the very least, what's available in [today's] technology."

As the Utah Lake algal bloom kept boaters and other fun-seekers off of Utah Lake, the toxic sludge migrated north into the Jordan River, with high levels of cyanobacteria, which can be produced by the algae, being detected at the mouths of Big and Little Cottonwood creeks.

Laura Hansen, executive director of the Jordan River Commission, says the river and the lake where its water comes from have come a long way since the days when livestock companies poured so much blood into the river that it ran red, and raw sewage discharges were the norm.

But recently, Hansen says wastewater treatment plants, which are perhaps the heaviest users of the river (during certain times of the year, the majority of the Jordan River's water is treated wastewater) have shown an interest in the River Commission, asking for places on the organization's board.

While treatment facilities grapple with nutrient levels, Hansen says that, like the river and its connection to Utah Lake, regular, everyday choices made by the people who live here can be impactful.

"It's our fertilizer on our lawn, it's the grass clippings in our gutter, it's the wastewater treatment facilities, it's our water consumption in our state, which draws down the level of water in all of these water bodies so that everything is more concentrated," Hansen says.

Just as this combination of factors magnifies the concentration of certain components in an algal bloom, so too does it magnify the interconnectivity of all living things. What happens in Utah Lake also happens in the Jordan River, the pristine mountain creeks that feed it and provide much of the Salt Lake Valley's water supply, and the Great Salt Lake.

While Utah Lake and the Jordan River have been maligned as polluted wastelands at various points in history, it is easy to look at both water sources and wonder how it is that they are not valued on the scale of other lakes and rivers across the country.

This always puzzled Candace Jacobson, who moved to Utah County decades ago to attend college and never left. She says a brief effort to form an advocacy organization with the lake's interests in mind occurred two decades ago, but was scuttled when it was discovered that Utah Lake's water belonged to downstream interests.

"To have a lake that's 95,000 acres that's for the most part unusable for anything, recreation or any commercial value at all, made me really interested in finding out how it turned out that way," Jacobson says. "There's just never been anyone who suggested that we can't keep abusing the lake."

To Jacobson, Utah Lake is an example of how the state takes care of its natural resources.

"I think in this environment, where we have the Public Lands Initiative and we have all of our representatives in Washington pounding their chests about 'We need our land back,'" she says, "I just think people should take note and think, 'Do we take care of it, or do we sell it to the highest bidder?'"

Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, echoes Jacobson's sentiment about the lake and the river being managed as something other than natural assets.

And if there's one thing that comes to Frankel's mind when discussing how Utah Lake and the Jordan River have been managed, it's "plumbing."

"The Utah Lake and Jordan River have been managed almost totally as a liability," Frankel says. "Here in Utah, we've ignored many of the economic benefits that come from recreation. We've treated our rivers like plumbing and people don't want to recreate in plumbing fixtures. They want to recreate in nature."

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