Wading Through the Waste Stream: A Report on Utah’s Water

Orem's treated waste water enters Utah Lake on its eastern edge. Photo by elisabeth Luntz.
Orem’s treated waste water enters Utah Lake on its eastern edge – Photo by Elisabeth Luntz.

-By Elisabeth Luntz

Editorial note: This is the first of a two-part series focused on waste treatment and public policy amidst Utah’s explosive growth. Part II was published in January and can be found here.

A closer look at wastewater management in Utah

Almost seventy years ago, a study showed Utah Lake was being severely polluted by human impact including population increases. As a result, Utah County cities decided to plan how and where to build sewage treatment plants to address the problem. By 1954, many cities had constructed treatment facilities but raw sewage was still pumped into the lake even as recently as 1967. When the plan was first drafted, Utah County had 57,000 residents – over those seventy years, the once sleepy county supported by two neighboring college towns boomed – today the county holds 10 times as many people, an estimated 575,000, with no sign of slowing as policy makers view the area as the next Silicon Valley. These so-called “Silicon Slopes” will only attract more people, more growth, and more pressures on the rarest of commodities in Utah, water. 

In Orem, a bedroom community and the home of Utah Valley University, the city’s wastewater facility maintains 297 miles of sewer lines in both Orem and neighboring Lindon. The plant, built in 1958, processes eight million gallons of water and 30 tons of biosolids each day. Additionally, the facility consumes $1,500 worth of electricity daily and employs 28 full-time workers.

Orem Reclamation Manager Lawrence Burton at the city's treatment plant. Photo by elisabeth Luntz
Orem Reclamation Manager Lawrence Burton at the city’s treatment plant – Photo by Elisabeth Luntz

The Environmental Protection Agency leaves pollution regulation to the states and presently, even though state and federal regulations prohibit the discharge of untreated sewage into the county’s drainage system, the nutrient content of treated sewage discharge has no nutrient limits statute by either agency. Ninety-nine percent of the sewage that the Orem plant processes is water, according to Reclamation Manager Lawrence Burton, who has been working there since the mid-80’s.

A Mysterious Problem

For the past four months, the inflow to the Orem plant has been contaminated by an unidentified, non-toxic, fibrous material that is being illegally dumped into the sewage system. The mysterious material was tested in a private laboratory in Provo as well as by researchers at Brigham Young University. The fiber is unique in that it is extremely fine and passes through the headworks screens and then accumulates in an aeration basin and settling ponds where the sticky fibers clog the system. Visually, it resembles insulation material blown into attics and the material can take up to 48 hours to clear so that regular flow rates and processing may occur. The city has a pre-treatment program that oversees the enforcement of action against violators as required by the Clean Water Act and is regulated by the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ)  and Division of Water Quality (DWQ) enforcement programs. The agencies have yet to identify the source of the contaminate and a DWQ investigation is ongoing. 

Lawrence Burton, Reclamation Manager of Orem's Waste Treatment Plant
Lawrence Burton, Reclamation Manager of Orem’s Waste Treatment Plant – Photo by Elizabeth Luntz

Water Treatment in an Unprecedented Era of Algae Blooms

In 2016, Utah experienced a summer of explosive algal bloom outbreaks. Twenty Utah waterways, including drinking sources and recreational facilities, were contaminated when nutrient pollution contributed to the growth of toxic algae and cyanobacteria. The situation was so severe that a dog, playing in the water, died from exposure. As the toxin levels increased, recreational activities were prohibited and parks were closed, including local marinas. Some managers dismissed the problem as only temporary and one that would end with a change in ambient temperatures.

Many processes in a wastewater treatment plant mimic nature. At a normal rate, bacteria in this treatment environment will consume organic contaminants, although this reduces levels of oxygen in the water and may significantly alter the overall ecology of a given area or ecosystem

High concentrations of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous are removed from wastewater with a biological nutrient removal (BNR) process in combination with anaerobic digestion. After that step, the slurry, known as effluent discharge, is then disinfected with ultraviolet light. Water samples are also collected and tested daily for E.coli bacteria and other toxins to determine permitted levels set at 126 ppm and Burton says actual levels fall far below at less than 20 ppm for E.coli.

“We [also] test for BOD (Biochemical Oxygen Demand), DO (Dissolved Oxygen), P (Phosphorus), and N (Nitrogen),” Burton told Utah Political Capitol, adding that “our permit requires all of these but we only have limits on the BOD, and DO. The P and the N [metrics] are for information purposes only at this point.”  

The state’s DEQ wants to impose a technology-based limit related to phosphorus, which would require wastewater treatment plants to install technologies that significantly reduce P levels by 2020.

Standards for Utah Lake, the Jordan River, and the Great Salt Lake are still being discussed by regulators and treatment engineers. Walt Baker, Director of the DWQ said he doesn’t expect to see a site-specific standard for Utah Lake before a $1 million study of Utah Lake is completed in 2020. Baker indicated that the Jordan River and the Great Salt Lake aren’t considered priorities for standards development because drinking water sources take precedence in a state with explosive population growth. Phosphorus regulation should reduce nutrient discharged from wastewater treatment plants into Utah waters by two-thirds, according to the DEQ.

A Cleaner Lake and Water Efficiency

Water efficiency is a term used for reducing water waste by measuring the amount of water required for a particular purpose and the amount of water used or delivered. It differs from water conservation, in that it focuses on reducing the waste of a valuable resource in an arid land, not with merely restricting use. Xeriscaping is an example of an attempt at water efficiency through the use of native desert design options. Orem water managers are working on a plan to divert nearly a quarter of the currently treated wastewater to a tertiary system that will irrigate the Lakeside Sports Park and Sleepy Ridge Golf Course. Those properties, and others like them, are currently irrigated with culinary grade water. The estimated cost for their upgraded distribution network is $2 million and will take 2-3 years to complete.

By 2050, it is estimated that effluent discharge will account for more than a quarter of all of the water flowing into Utah Lake. When the purification process is completed, the result is referred to as “recreational grade water” safe for boating and swimming. Currently treated water is released into the marshy wetlands surrounding Utah Lake’s eastern boundary, closest to the Orem and Lindon communities. Currently, 13.5 percent of the water in the lake comes from treatment plants but the process doesn’t stop there…Sewage sludge bio-solids have to undergo further treatment before being suitable for disposal or land applications such as fertilizers, soil amendments or other commercial uses. City and county managers in Utah have many options to manage the solid waste bi-product. Utah Political Capitol will address management concerns and public policy about solid waste in Part II of this series.

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