The water cycle in communities across Utah is pretty straightforward. Water comes out of creeks and reservoirs, serves some purpose, and is put back into the chain further downstream. But as Matt Jensen explains, as the state’s population continues to rise, what we put back into the chain often comes with more than just water.
In the mountain communities in and around Park City, a perfect storm is brewing. The region’s three large ski resorts and growing population consume more water than ever before from natural springs, creeks and reservoirs.
During the driest months of the year some of those creeks dry up, turning their once consistent flows into trickles.
Park City’s culinary water eventually goes down the drain and into one of two waste water treatment plants. The discharge from the plants is crystal clear water that feeds back into two native trout streams called the Silver Creek and East Canyon Creek.
But with so much water coming out of the streams beforehand to supply homes and hotels, the discharge from the two plants – or effluent – often makes up most of the creeks’ flows downstream of each facility.
“In essence, the majority of the creek, or the water flowing in the creek below us, is made up of treated wastewater.”
That’s Mike Luers, an environmental scientist and general manager at the Snyderville Basin Water Reclamation District – the group responsible for wastewater treatment in the Park City area. He says having a creek full of treated wastewater creates a unique problem for the trout species living in the streams.
We walk into a visitors center and up to a large fish tank, full of chilled fresh water.
“These are Bonneville cutthroat trout," says Luers. "These are the native species of greatest concern in East Canyon Creek that we’re trying to protect. We like to show people what an actual Bonneville cutthroat trout looks like, and this is what they look like.”
The potential problem for fish, he explains, is that the effluent from the treatment plants isn’t exactly pure H2O. Even though Park City treats its water to a higher standard than most plants across the country, a cocktail of goodies makes its way through the system.
The active ingredients in anti-depressants, birth control and hand sanitizer can pass right through the treatment process and into the world of a Bonneville cutthroat trout.
Scientists call this group of tiny infiltrators contaminants of emerging concern. Some of these contaminants are known as endocrine-disrupting compounds because they can potentially change the biological messages created by the fish’s natural hormones.
“When it comes to these endocrine-disrupting compounds, wastewater treatment facilities across the United States, and for that matter across the world, were never designed to remove these types of compounds,” says Luers.
One of the biggest concerns to wildlife biologists is that even in miniscule doses, these compounds can feminize male fish, leading to altered behavior and even the production of ovary-type tissues in their bodies.
The effect here in Park City is no different than anywhere else in the world. What makes the problem unique here is that with more and more residents taking their share of water, the trout species could soon be living in creeks made up entirely of treated wastewater year-round.
“This has been studied around the world but we kind of have a perfect storm here in our community because we have very low streamflows above us, the amount of wastewater is increasing because more people move here, and the situation is rife for potential problems," says Luers.
Three million gallons of treated wastewater are discharged each day from the treatment plants, and with an increase in the number of people moving to the region, Luers says aquatic life here could face a serious problem.
About six years ago, Snyderville became the first water reclamation group in the state to start looking for solutions to the problem. The agency teamed up with wildlife biologists to see if feminization was actually leading to a sex ratio problem in the creeks. After months of research, the group found that fish exposed to 100 percent effluent had a surge in a particular protein that leads to estrogenicity – or feminization.
It turns out, sex ratios are still even – probably because an influx of fresh water from snowmelt each year refills the creeks and the ratio of treated to fresh water in the streams balances out.
All this research points to an obvious problem for the fish, but what does it say about impacts to human health? Luers says the topic of emerging contaminants is so new, there are no environmental rules about how much or what kinds of compounds can be left in the water. For now, he says the topic raises more questions than answers.
It is possible to remove trace contaminants by adding an extra step in the filtration process. A combination of ozone and peroxide technology can break the compounds down but it will cost about $11 million to equip the Snyderville plants with the technology to do it. Luers says he’s waiting to for new rules before installing any new equipment.
Reporting from Park City, I’m Matt Jensen for Five Billion Gallons.
Five Billion Gallons is a production of Utah Public Radio, supported by Penn State Public Media’s “Think Outside the Pipes” radio initiative.