A summer of water quality problems



American Fork River, August 2016.

Utah has been plagued with a series of water quality problems this summer.

It began in July with a toxic algal bloom that originated in Utah Lake and spread to the Jordan River. The waters were closed to public access and irrigation systems throughout southern Salt Lake County were shut down for two weeks. Many animals in contact with the water were exposed to cyanobacteria and farmers halted production until the water quality improved. A $1 million study has begun to investigate the effect of nutrient loading in the lake, though some researchers argue that nutrients are not the limiting factor.

Then in mid-August came a massive release of metal-laden sediment into the American Fork River from the reconstruction of Tibble Fork Dam. The spill suffocated thousands of fish and turned the otherwise scenic mountain river into a dirty, grayish-brown torrent. Though the damage is done, water quality experts worry that rainfall and spring runoff will agitate sediments once again and cause another spill.

Just this week, algae and escalating levels of cyanobacteria in Scofield Reservoir prompted a recreation ban until further notice. The blue-green film, covering most of the lake, has killed fish and fowl. Payson Lakes have also experienced algal blooms, and visitors are warned to avoid the water. Nutrients, low water levels, and high temperatures contributed to the problem. At Utah Lake, Lincoln Beach remains closed.

The coming seasons will no doubt present other water challenges—snowpack, storms, floods—but this summer has been one of water quality problems we hope will not be repeated.

Robert B. Sowby

Robert B. Sowby is a water resources engineer at Hansen, Allen & Luce. A graduate of BYU, MIT, and the U, he has contributed to over 100 civil, water, and environmental projects throughout North America.

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