OGDEN -- The Division of Water Quality is studying how to get nutrients out of the state's water in a process that could end up adding hundreds of millions of dollars to Utah sewer bills.
But not all at once. The difference could be as little as a dollar a month on sewage bills, depending on where you live.
Nothing is decided, but what is certain is that much of the rest of the nation already has wide restrictions on nutrient pollution of water and the federal Environmental Protection Agency will put them into place in Utah if Utah doesn't do it first.
Plus, there are economic benefits.
"How many millions a year industry is the brine shrimp industry?" said Paul Krauth, an environmental engineer who is visiting communities around the state to explain the program. "Potentially, we don't want to lose the brine shrimp industry because we are overloading the Great Salt Lake."
Nutrient pollution also harms recreation. It kills fish, clogs rivers and makes the water unsightly for swimming.
It increases costs of treating drinking water as well. Leah Ann Lamb, deputy director of the Division of Water Quality, said that's why water treatment operators around Utah are solidly behind the work.
The nutrients causing the trouble are phosphorus and nitrogen, used in laundry detergents, fertilizers and other industrial jobs.
When they get into water, they cause algae to grow, which in turn suck all the oxygen out of the water.
Krauth spoke recently to the Plain City City Council about the dangers, saying "Algae is growing in Pineview, the algae plants are growing in the bottom of the systems. In Utah, overgrowth in the water looks like green latex paint."
Krauth said he's visiting a wide number of area municipalities because they are the joint owners of the sewage treatment facilities that will, eventually, have to do the improved water treatment and tax residents to pay for it.
The whole program is explained at the DWQ web site: www.nutrients.utah.gov.
Lamb said Utah already regulates discharge of nutrients in areas where water quality is impaired. The new work will expand that statewide, requiring all who discharge water into rivers or streams to meet the quality standards.
What those quality standards will be, and how much it will cost to meet them, is as much art as science.
The first part of the study, which Krauth said DWQ contracted to have done, looked at all the municipal sewage plants around the state.
The idea was to figure out how much it will cost to bring them up to minimum federal standard and to maximum standard, which he said much of the East Coast already meets.
For example, he said, it would cost $10 million to raise the Central Weber Sewer Improvement District's plant on Pioneer Road to the minimum level, and $185 million to go all the way.
The North Davis Sewer District's plant will cost $33 million for the minimum level, and $112 million for the maximum.
That's because it uses different technology to treat the water, he said.
Costs to customers also vary. Weber District customers would see their bills go up anywhere from 98 cents a month to $24.81 a month.
Where the cost ends up depends on the level of removal they shoot for, and that is going to depend on more than just levels of chemicals in the water.
Environmental toxicologist Chris Bittner said water quality levels depend, in part, on which water you are looking at.
Water flowing from Moab into the Colorado River is different than water going into Farmington Bay because the bay is kind of like water flowing into a closed bathtub, he said, so buildup is more critical.
Some of the decision is subjective, he said. Because recreational use is important, there's the question of "at what level of murkiness will people say 'Ugh! This is disgusting.' "
Lamb said there's also a lot of cost-benefit work to be done.
Money is limited, so they have to determine levels that give the best protection for each water source.
"We've done a number of studies on Utahns who are high recreation users to try to understand how gunky is too gunky," she said.
Across the nation, she said, different levels of nutrients cause problems, and the trick will be to find those levels in Utah before trying to implement the changes.
"It will be mandatory, but not everybody's going to hit the same end point," she said.
Bittner said "we're talking years" when asked how long until implementation is ordered. When that time comes, he said, Utah has a revolving fund to help districts finance improvements.
Correspondent Terrie Stephenson contributed to this report.