In April 2015, Erica Gaddis, Assistant Director of the Utah Division of Water Quality (“DWQ”), sent a memo to its agency and stakeholder water quality partners announcing that “DWQ is organizing a Water Quality Health Advisory Panel whose objectives are to coordinate and communicate on water quality issues associated with specific public health concerns.”
DWQ Issues Memo Regarding Water Quality Health Advisory Panel
The DWQ memo said that the initial primary focus of the Water Quality Health Advisory Panel would be “coordination around E. coli, mercury, and harmful Algal Blooms (HABs).” However, the DWQ said it expected that other issues would come up in the future, which would be appropriate for the panel to address. The formation of the Water Quality Health Advisory Panel necessarily required dissolution and consolidation of the existing E. coli workgroup, Mercury workgroup, and ad hoc HABs workgroup. “Combining these groups into a single advisory panel will be more efficient by eliminating overlap among members of the workgroup,” the memo said. “Also, it will help ensure that solutions to these interrelated problems are more consistent.”
Objectives of the Water Quality Health Advisory Panel
The memo then went on to address the specific objectives of the Water Quality Health Advisory Panel, including:
- Develop or refine, as necessary, water quality indicators, monitoring strategies, and assessment methods related to water quality issues that have human health implications. Work with DWQ’s Water Quality Standards workgroup on numeric standards, as appropriate.
- Develop consistent statewide policies outlining actions to be taken if/when indicators suggest threats to recreation and drinking water uses as well as threats to wildlife, livestock, and pets.
- Further develop the fish consumption advisory methodology, specifically how to manage annual variability of mercury concentrations at a waterbody and when to remove an advisory if the data indicate there is no longer a public health risk.
- Communicate a unified message regarding public health risks associated with specific events based on a comprehensive review of the data and relevant literature.
- Develop and refine field and laboratory Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), Sample Analysis Plans (SAPs) and related data management and analytical methods.
- Review and communicate technical information about E. coli, mercury and Harmful Algal Blooms monitoring results.
- Develop prioritization criteria for future sampling of water bodies across the state for health related concerns including E. coli, mercury, and harmful algae.
- Disperse training information to local partners and provide regional training (e.g. IDEXX).
- Review public information materials, including fact sheets, pamphlets, advisory notices, and website content to inform the public about health advisories and closures of recreational waters.
- Identify and prioritize research to better understand risks to human health, livestock, and wildlife, or to solve water quality problems that are currently known.
Water Quality Health Advisory Panel to Meet in Spring and Winter
The memo then concludes with a logistics section regarding how the Water Quality Health Advisory Panel would operate and who would be members in the advisory panel. The panel will convene twice a year, once in the spring and once in the winter, according to the memo. The purpose of the spring meeting is to recommend monitoring locations and review coordination processes in the event of a health related water quality event, whereas the purpose of the winter meeting is to review the data collected during the summer monitoring season and any public advisories that were subsequently identified. Any process improvements related to health related advisories will also be identified for work over the winter season.
First Meeting Held in July 2015
- Formalize and clarify the role of the Water Quality Health Advisory Panel and how we will do business.
- Ensure that all panel members are familiar with agency roles and responsibilities for ongoing water quality and human health related issues.
- Discuss new guidance and sampling protocols for Harmful Algal Blooms.
- Develop a draft agency coordination plan to execute during Harmful Algal Bloom events.
Scientists Warn of Risks of Poisonous Algal Blooms
According to an article from the Salt Lake Tribune, at the July meeting of the Water Quality Health Advisory Panel, scientists warned that 44 percent of Utah’s waterways — including several drinking-water sources — are at risk of developing poisonous algal blooms. The most common of the harmful algae, said Craig Dietrich, an environmental epidemiologist for the state department of health, produce toxins that damage the liver.
Less common algae produce neurotoxins, including a toxin known as Anatoxin-a. Before it was fully understood, Dietrich said, scientists called Anatoxin-a “very sudden death factor,” because the toxin, which is capable of causing respiratory failure in as little as 20 minutes, breaks down extremely quickly in the environment and is difficult to detect.
Most people understand that it’s unwise to drink stagnant water, Dietrich said, so the toxins don’t pose a huge risk to humans. But livestock and pets — especially dogs — are another matter. “Dogs love to get into things that are strange and smelly,” he said. “And they consistently will drink surface waters that you let them get into.” Two dogs died after being exposed to Utah Lake water on Oct. 4 and 5 of last year. At the time, toxins in some samples taken from the lake’s Lindon Marina were 70 times World Health Organization advisory levels.
Second Meeting Held in March 2016
In March 2016, the Water Quality Health Advisory Panel held its second meeting. The goals for the March meeting were:
- Provide updates to attendees on water quality health advisories from 2015
- Discuss 2016 sampling and communications plans
- Establish a work group to address assessment method revisions for E. coli, HABs and mercury
* Photo Cred.: health.utah.gov