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Environmental officials have grim prediction for Utah’s water quality picture

(Debris in the Jordan River. Photo: Tony Frates, courtesy of the Utah Division of Water Quality.)

SALT LAKE CITY – As the world celebrates Earth Day, environmental officials said there’s some very bad news about the water quality in Utah. They say it’s declining, and they believe it’s just going to keep getting worse. 

The Utah Division of Water Quality recently assessed over 1,900 monitoring sites in over 900 different lakes, rivers or streams.  The numbers were not good.  Division Director, Dr. Erica Gaddis says 42 percent of the waters they checked were deemed to be “impaired.”  What does that mean?

Utah’s water ‘impaired water quality

“The water quality does not support their intended uses, whether that’s for drinking water, recreation, fish or agricultural uses,” Gaddis said.

The definition of “impaired” can change based on what the water is supposed to be used for.  For instance, water designated for fish hatcheries may not have enough oxygen.  Or, water set aside for irrigation may be too salty.

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Gaddis said, “For example, in our recreational waters, we want to make sure the E coli concentrations are low so that we protect recreational users.”

Only one-third of Utah’s waters were called “impaired” just a decade ago.  Gaddis said quality standards have increased since then, which may factor into declining quality levels.  However, she says pollution levels have increased as the state’s population has. 

If Utah is going to keep up with projected growth, Gaddis believes major upgrades are going to have to happen to sewage treatment systems across the state.  Many sewage systems are about 40 years old and coming to the end of their useful life span, so the division will be working with cities to make these upgrades.  Drinking water standards are highly regulated in the state, and Gaddis says it’s always treated before reaching our faucets. 

“Of course, the fish don’t get to have their water treated and on our recreational waters, people are directly exposed to surface waters,” she says.

Harmful algae levels are expected to be higher this year, partly due to the dry winter.  Gaddis says there wasn’t as much snow and rain to flush out chemicals like nitrogen and phosphorous as normal.  Utah Lake is most commonly known for having high levels of algae blooms.

“There are a number of others, like Scofield Reservoir, Pineview Reservoir and some of the other state parks around the state.  We’ll be actively monitoring to make sure the public is protected from any developing harmful algal blooms,” according to Gaddis.

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