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Nutrients in Utah's Waters
Utah's Approach for Addressing Nutrient Pollution
The significant rise in recent years in nitrogen and phosphorus levels in water bodies has worsened existing nutrient-related water quality problems across the country. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus in Utah waters adversely impact the state's streams, rivers, and lakes.
The Division of Water Quality (DWQ) is currently at work on a nutrient reduction plan tailored to the unique needs of Utah waters. DWQ has already identified numerous watersheds in the state that are struggling with high nutrient levels. In an effort to reverse this increasing trend, DWQ, in partnership with a comprehensive team of federal, State, and local stakeholders, established a working group to develop criteria for nitrogen and phosphorus levels and devise nutrient reduction programs to resolve excess nutrient loading in the state's waters.
What is Nutrient Pollution?
Nitrogen and phosphorus are nutrients that are natural parts of aquatic ecosystems. Nitrogen and phosphorus support the growth of the algae and aquatic plants that provide food and habitat for fish and smaller aquatic organisms. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus, or nutrient pollution, can result in serious water quality problems. It impairs drinking water, endangers aquatic life, and threatens recreational uses. It can pose serious risks to human health and can damage the economy.
Excess nitrogen and phosphorus in the water causes algae to grow faster than ecosystems can handle, a process known as eutrophication. Significant increases in algae harm water quality, food resources and habitats, and decrease the oxygen that fish and other aquatic life need to survive. Large growths of algae are called algal blooms and they can severely reduce or eliminate oxygen in the water, leading to illnesses in fish and the death of large numbers of fish. Some algal blooms are harmful to humans because they produce elevated toxins and bacterial growth that can make people sick if they come into contact with polluted water, consume tainted fish, or drink contaminated water.
Utah's Adaptive Management Approach
The Division's goal in developing Utah's nutrient reduction plan is to protect Utah waters for their beneficial uses. Given the wide diversity of streams and lakes throughout Utah, the levels of nutrients protective of beneficial uses in one type of stream will be different than in another. DWQ, in collaboration with a team of core stakeholders, has assembled a toolbox of comprehensive and adaptive solutions to the problem of nutrient pollution in Utah. The draft plan offers a range of options to address nutrient pollution, including:
- Nutrient standards to establish pollutant concentration limits that protect water bodies for their beneficial uses.
- Statewide monitoring to identify water bodies with nutrient problems.
- Site-specific strategies that account for the differences in water bodies and their sources of nutrient pollution.
- Technology based limits for municipal discharges that can be phased in over time.
- An environmental stewardship certification program, along with guidance on the application of Best Management Practices (BMPs), for agricultural nonpoint sources of nutrient pollution.
- A potential funding mechanism to address nonpoint sources of nutrient pollution.
- Watershed scale nutrient reduction strategies, with an initial focus on headwaters.