Half-century after the Clean Water Act, half of Utah’s waterways remain polluted

The problem — now and into the future — keeps at least one regulator “up at night.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) An old drainage pipe juts out of the bank of the Bear River in Corrine, March 23, 2022. An environmental group is using the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act to call attention to the fact that many states’ waters remain troubled, and Utah is no exception.

An environmental group is using this year’s 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act to call attention to the fact that many states’ waters remain troubled, and Utah is no exception.

Congress enacted the amended 1972 act to help build wastewater treatment plants and regulate the industries that discharge pollutants into streams. Gone are the days when Ohio’s Cuyahoga River burned in downtown Cleveland or the Potomac River stunk up the nation’s capital with the smell of sewage.

But a report by the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project, or EIP, found that more than 11 million acres of lakes and reservoirs and 700,000 miles of streams and rivers across the nation remain too impaired for basic activities like swimming and fishing.

“We’re hoping at this half-century mark, we can find the courage to recommit to the Clean Water Act and make the hard decisions we need to make,” Eric Schaeffer, executive director of EIP and a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency attorney, said at a news event last week.

Under the Clean Water Act, states must submit an evaluation of their waterways in a document called an “integrated report.” EIP reviewed each of those reports and other available water data, finding about 58% of Utah’s streams and a quarter of the nation’s waters have been fully assessed.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Bear River near the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, March 23, 2022.

“This is an issue where the more you look,” Schaeffer said, “the more [issues] you’re going to find.”

In Utah, regulators have found about half the state’s waters are impaired in some way, according to Elise Hinman, a scientist and integrated report program manager with the state Division of Water Quality. She called EIP’s evaluation “impressive.”

“Their report is very timely in that it highlights an important issue we’re dealing with across the country,” Hinman said. “Significant progress has been made, but ... there’s a lot more work to be done.”

Where Utah ranks for clean water

Utah mirrors the nation, where about half the waters are also impaired, the EIP report found. The reasons vary from place to place. In Oregon, climate change is heating up rivers and making them unsuitable for fish. Indiana has trouble with runoff from feedlots, which washes heavy nutrient loads and fecal matter into streams. Those states top EIP’s lists for the most miles of polluted streams for aquatic life and recreation, respectively.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Little Cottonwood Creek at Murray Park, on Wednesday, March 23, 2022.

Utah ranks high in some of the report’s categories as well. It has the third-most rivers and streams that pose a risk to fish, with 34,910 miles impaired for aquatic life. The Beehive State is also No. 7 for the amount of rivers and streams that are too polluted for swimming and recreation, with 11,759 miles impaired.

EIP staffers acknowledge, however, that it’s not quite fair to make comparisons across states. Utah is relatively big with more land area than states like Vermont or Delaware, for example, which means it also has more miles and acres of water.

States also assess their waters differently. Utah reports intermittent and ephemeral streams that flow a portion of the year, while other states include only streams that run continually.

Still, Utah faces sizable and complex challenges when it comes to pollutants reaching surface waters. An interactive map included with the most recent integrated report shows the extent of the problem.

(Image from Utah Department of Environmental Quality Final 2022 Integrated Report on Water Quality)

Although the terminology included with the map can be jargon-heavy and confusing, green basically means state scientists and other stakeholders have thoroughly assessed the watershed or water body and found it’s in good shape for recreation, wildlife or use as drinking water. The Left Hand Fork of the Blacksmith Fork near Logan falls into this category, as do the South Fork of the Ogden River, City Creek in Salt Lake City, Lake Powell and portions of the Colorado River.

Blue means it has been partly assessed and appears well, although state scientists may have missed something. The Great Salt Lake, Bear Lake and Malad River are some examples.

Gray means there’s not enough information to make a determination. Some tributaries to the Green River and portions of the Sevier River are among the waterways with insufficient data. Purple means the waterway has been studied and found impaired in some way, but the state has developed a plan to address the pollution. Examples include sections of the Price River, parts of the Colorado River and places along the Fremont River.

Red means the waterway is impaired with no approved plan. And the map has plenty of red — the Jordan River, Utah Lake and large sections of the Green River are among the many waterways in this category.

A river can fall into the red impaired category for not meeting one of many dozens of criteria, including temperature, pH and levels of dissolved oxygen, or the presence of pollutants like metals.

“This map does show,” Hinman said, that “we’ve found a lot of water quality issues that need addressing throughout the state.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Little Cottonwood Creek at Murray Park on Wednesday, March 23, 2022.

Lagging EPA water standards

One reason so many of the nation’s bodies of water remain impaired comes from the top: The EPA and state regulators have faced budget cuts, and EPA hasn’t kept its standards updated with evolving pollution control technologies. Another review EIP conducted in 2021 found that two-thirds of industries haven’t seen revisions to their pollution limits in more than 30 years.

“These badly outdated standards mean more pollution from oil refineries, chemical plants, slaughterhouses and other industries pouring into waterways than we would have if these standards had been updated on schedule,” the EIP states in its Clean Water Act report.

It also notes the Clean Water Act put stricter controllers on “point” sources of pollution — things like a pipe from a factory or sewage plant that a regulator could point to as a source of contamination. But one of the biggest obstacles to cleaning up waterways across the U.S. is “nonpoint” sources that come from runoff instead of effluent pipes.

These pollutants are “more prevalent” in Utah, according to Jodi Gardberg, who manages the Division of Water Quality’s watershed protection section. They include “things like agriculture, mining or even the effects of forest fires increasing erosion.”

Nonpoint pollution has caused contamination from E. coli bacteria across the state as well, including in the Jordan River.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The remains of an old car juts out of the banks of the Bear River in Corrine, March 23, 2022.

“Typical sources,” Gardberg said, “would be runoff from things like pet waste in an urban environment to cattle pooping in the stream.”

But nonpoint sources are not regulated under the Clean Water Act.

The division tries to address them through voluntary programs, like incentive grants for farmers in partnership with other state agencies like the Department of Agriculture. The Utah Department of Natural Resources has also poured millions into its Watershed Restoration Initiative since 2006.

The more Utah’s regulators sample, however, the more impaired surface waters they find, making it hard to identify pollution trends, Gardberg said. The main pollutants also vary from stream to stream and watershed to watershed.

“It would be nice if we could do a study on every impaired water body,” she said, “but we don’t have the resources to do that.”

Looking to the future, two looming issues pose further threats to Utah’s water quality: drought and population growth. Drought means less water and more concentrated pollutants, Gardberg explained. And population growth means more demand for water resources, along with more waste and runoff.

“I want our water quality to be protected for future generations,” she said. “It keeps me up at night because there’s so much to do to address it. And it’s something we need to invest in.”