- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 14, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - More than half of Utah’s lakes and nearly half of its streams don’t meet federal water quality standards, according to a new report from the Utah Division of Water Quality.

Metal levels are high on parts of the San Juan River, which was affected by a massive spill that sent 3 million gallons of acid mine waste from the Gold King Mine in southwestern Colorado into rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.

The report released Monday found that two parts of the river near the Four Corners region are impaired for aquatic life due to the presence of heavy metals like aluminum, copper, lead and zinc, said Walt Baker, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality.

But it’s not yet clear whether the metals came directly from the Aug. 5 spill, Baker said. The area has been a center for mining for the past century and the metal levels could be remnants of past mine waste. It’s hard to tell because the state wasn’t regularly collecting that data before the spill, Baker said.

For now, the state is monitoring the spring runoff that’s now coming down off the mountains and prepping to keep a close eye on fish habitats over the long haul.

“The canary in the coal mine is going to be the fish,” Baker said.

Also under the microscope in Monday’s report was Utah Lake, which didn’t meet water quality standards because of harmful algal blooms.

Utah health officials sent out a warning about bright green algae in Utah Lake in 2014 when a dog died after it played in water tinged with the plant.

Algae sometimes produce natural toxins and the dog probably drank some water at Lindon Marina about 45 minutes before it died, health authorities said at the time.

While the algal blooms at Utah Lake aren’t always toxic, too much of the aquatic plant is a problem because when it decomposes it can rob water of the oxygen that fish and other aquatic life need to survive, Baker said.

The blooms are fed by nutrients in the lake that can come from several places, including treated wastewater that’s pumped into the lake and fertilizer runoff.

“We need to figure out where the smoking gun is, what’s causing this problem. This is not normal, this is abnormal,” Baker said.

The Division of Water Quality collects the data every two years and reports it to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The report released Monday is a draft, and the Division of Water Quality will take public comment on it for the next 60 days.


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