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Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Ron Christen, Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, Theron Miller, of the Wasatch Front Water Quality Council, and Cindy Gubler, of Wilkinson Ferrari & Co., left to right, talk as legislators take a tour of Utah Lake on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017.

AMERICAN FORK — Rep. Mike Noel was glinting into the face of the sun as the pontoon boat chugged through the waters of Utah Lake.

The Republican legislator from Kanab wanted to know a couple of things: Why spend money on this lake?

Is that money going to help?

The "help" Utah Lake needs is to get a handle on its nutrient pollution problem, which is a contributing factor to the onset of potentially harmful blue-green algae in the shallow, freshwater body.

Members of the Wasatch Front Water Quality Council — made up of a coalition of publicly owned wastewater treatment plants — hosted Noel and other lawmakers Wednesday for a presentation on the pollution problem, what their role is as facilities that discharge treated wastewater into the lake and what challenges lie ahead.

"Utah Lake is an amazing resource for the environment, recreation and the economy," Neal Winterton from Orem's water resources division explained.

One of those culprits in nutrient pollution is phosphorus, which is a component of treated wastewater discharge, but also a byproduct of agricultural operations, stormwater runoff and a naturally occurring nutrient in ecosystems.

Wastewater treatment plants have to comply with a new technology-based standard for phosphorus with a Utah rule that comes into effect in 2020. Estimates vary, but plant officials say the necessary upgrades run in the hundreds of millions of dollars to a billion dollars for treatment plants statewide.

At the Timpanogos Special Services District — which serve 10 northern Utah cities — upgrades there will cost $90 million alone, officials said.

With even stricter limits a possibility, the coalition of plant operators, joined by the Utah Division of Water Quality, urged members of the Utah Legislature's Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee as well as the State Water Development Commission to learn about the issue and its ramifications.

A grant of $1 million from the Utah Water Quality Board, $1.2 million from the University of Utah and treatment plants will pay for the initial phase of a study of the Utah Lake issue.

Beyond that, water quality division Director Erica Gaddis said the state is identifying high-priority headwaters for a phosphorus limit — an effort Gaddis says sets Utah apart.

"No one else is doing this," Gaddis said at a presentation earlier in the day. States like Colorado and Montana developed a universal standard for all water bodies, she said.

The tricky question in this nutrient pollution debate is how much of a contributing role wastewater treatment plants play — and if sewer district customers should shoulder the costs that some skeptics say will produce negligible, if any, benefits to waters like Utah Lake.

Theron Miller, who said he's been studying effluent issues on water for 39 years, doubts the new standard will be effective.

"I don't think it is going to do us a whole lot of good," said Miller, who was hired by the coalition.

"The (rule) buys us some time" with the federal government and its oversight, he said. "Extremely valuable time to do some research and answer my skepticism."

Miller's field of academic speciality is bio-geo chemistry, and in the case of Utah Lake, he suspects the sediments, or soils, play a much bigger role in phosphorus levels than believed

As this new study starts to take shape to provide more definitive answers, Miller said he is hopeful it will provide science-based solutions.

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"As an ecologist, I want to help the lake. That is my No. 1 agenda. At the end of the day, if we need to build a plant and Utah Lake will improve, we're on board."

What the science will say is the big question for all involved in the destiny of the lake and the efforts to keep Utah's waterways in as good as condition as possible — from the scientists to plant operators and lawmakers who must plan for the future

House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, noted the difficulty of the task ahead.

"The amount of money we could spend on this is infinite," he said. "How do we strike the right balance?"