Dozens of recreational Utah water bodies that have been regularly tested for toxic algal blooms in recent years went untested this spring due to state budget cuts to the Utah Division of Water Quality (DWQ) testing and monitoring program.

The DWQ began monitoring 65 water bodies after a harmful algal bloom, or HAB, spread across Utah Lake in 2016 and led to the Utah County Health Department closing the lake for two weeks, according to DWQ Director Erica Gaddis. The same year, a separate algal bloom killed fish in the Scofield Reservoir in Carbon County.

“This is really when we realized we needed a more robust, coordinated (testing and monitoring) approach across the state,” Gaddis told state lawmakers during a Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee meeting on Monday.

During the 2019 fiscal year, the Utah State Legislature appropriated $200,000 in annual funds for HAB monitoring and testing. But, according to Gaddis, lawmakers cut that funding during this year’s general session and re-directed it toward algal blooms testing and treatment initiatives specific to Utah Lake.

“So with that cut and with the supplemental cut of $100,000 that we had already spent, we were not able to get our monitoring crews out this spring,” the DWQ director said.

In late June, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gave the state water quality division a $104,000 grant to fund HAB monitoring efforts. The DWQ monitored 18 water bodies in July, a nearly three-quarter decrease in the number of water bodies that were monitored the previous year.

“We’ve reduced from about 60 water bodies around the state that we have been monitoring for the last few years down to just 18 because of the funding cuts,” said Gaddis. “And those 18 are largely state parks. They’re really the areas where the public is most likely to interact directly with the water body, and where we’ve had issues of algal blooms in the past.”

While 35 health advisories related to HABs were issued for various water bodies throughout the state between 2017 and 2019, which is on par with the annual average, only four advisories have been issued this year, according to an HAB program summary presented to the legislative subcommittee on Monday.

Despite the decrease in monitoring, the Utah Poison Control Center has already reported 43 illnesses associated with algal blooms this year, which is higher than the statewide average of 40 over the past three years.

Gaddis urged lawmakers to restore funding for statewide monitoring of toxic algae, which she noted can cause “gastrointestinal, some skin irritation and some neurological symptoms” in humans, pets and livestock.

Gaddis also noted that HABs “are becoming more prominent” in Utah, as well as nationally and globally, in part due to increasing summer and spring temperatures.

“The funding that was cut from DEQ really supports the foundational aspects of this program,” she said. “That is, the monitoring crews and the lab analysis and the local health department advisory program. So in terms of moving forward, it’s our hope that we can find a way to restore that foundational funding in the years to come.”

Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, said he supported water quality monitoring efforts but added that one of the reasons legislators cut funding was because “many stakeholders began to raise concerns with the testing program because the amount of warnings and the amount of concerns raised were exponentially greater than the EPA standards in this sphere.”

“We certainly can’t put at risk the health (and) the safety of the public,” said Stratton, who narrowly defeated his GOP opponent, David Shallenberger, during the June primary. “But (at) the end of these (state-funded HAB) studies are recommendations to correct, and we need to make sure that we’re getting accurate information on the front end.”

For more information about HABs, visit http://deq.utah.gov/water-quality/harmful-algal-blooms-home.

Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at crichards@heraldextra.com and 801-344-2599.

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