Nutrient Pollution: A Persistent Threat to Wyoming Waterways

Imagine this: You stop by a lake to admire its scenic surroundings and natural beauty. But strangely, you notice large chunks of green scum and scores of lifeless fish floating on the once-clear surface while a foul odor fills the air. This spooky, unsightly event results from nutrient pollution, a widespread problem impairing surface water quality in over 40 U.S. states, including Wyoming.

Clean waterways are among the Cowboy State’s many core features, serving as a drinking water source, providing habitats for aquatic plants and animals, and supporting industries like agriculture and tourism. But unfortunately, its rivers, lakes, streams, and other surface water sources are in peril due to nutrient pollution, which has prompted health worries and warnings in various communities.

In this article, we’ll explore what nutrient pollution is, what causes it, and what local authorities and health officials in Wyoming are doing to tackle this critical issue. We’ll also explain how you can remove contaminants possibly in your drinking water due to nutrient pollution.

What is Nutrient Pollution?

Also known as eutrophication, nutrient pollution is a phenomenon that occurs when too many nutrients, mainly nitrogen and phosphorus, enter a water body. These nutrients are vital for plant growth, but excess amounts can cause algae to grow excessively.

Causes of Nutrient Pollution in Wyoming’s Surface Waters

Nitrogen and phosphorus occur naturally in the atmosphere and waterways. Living organisms need these chemical elements to grow, but too much can be damaging. Here are some possible situations that caused an overabundance of these nutrients in Wyoming’s surface waters:

Burning fossil fuels

Wyoming produces 40 percent of the nation’s coal and relies on fossil fuels to generate nearly 60 percent of state and local revenues. But here’s the bad news for the state’s waterways: burning fossil fuels releases massive amounts of nitrogen oxide emissions into the air, resulting in smog and acid rain. The nitrogen oxides return to the land and water bodies through rain and snow.

Furthermore, every year, burning fossil fuels emits 22 tera-grams of nitrogen pollution into the air globally, primarily from coal-fired power plants and the exhaust of vehicles like cars, buses, and trucks.

Runoff of Chemical Fertilizers and Animal Manure

Wyoming may not be as well-known for agriculture as states like California, Iowa, and Nebraska. However, it still has some agricultural activity, like cattle ranching and crop production, contributing to nutrient pollution in parts of the state.

Generally, crop production involves using chemical fertilizers or animal manure known to contain nitrogen and phosphorus. During heavy showers or floods, fertilized soil or livestock operations release these nutrients into local waters, increasing the risk of nutrient pollution. The same occurs when homeowners or turfgrass professionals apply too much fertilizer to gardens and lawns.

Learn more: Effects of Fertilizer Runoff on Drinking Water Quality

Sewage Treatment Plant Discharges

Like other states, sewage treatment plants play a crucial role in keeping Wyoming’s communities clean and healthy. But municipal sewer and septic systems often fail to remove nitrogen and phosphorus from urban waste.

Untreated or inadequately treated waste in waterways increases nutrient pollution. Some detergents used for cleaning and laundry may also contain these nutrients, encouraging nitrogen pollution when not disposed of correctly.

Learn more: The Dangers of Sewage in Drinking Water

Climate Change

Rising temperatures are causing changes in precipitation patterns and increasing the frequency of extreme weather events in Wyoming, like hurricanes, droughts, and floods. These events can lead to higher levels of runoff and soil erosion, causing an influx of nutrients into surface waters and exacerbating the effects of nutrient pollution.

Effects of Nutrient Pollution

Nutrient pollution harms the environment by impairing water quality, destroying ecosystems, and disrupting plant and animal species. Excess nutrients in water act as fertilizer, causing algae to grow faster than ecosystems can handle, resulting in the growth of algal blooms.

Harmful to Aquatic Life and the Ecosystem

Algal blooms produce toxins that are harmful to fish and other aquatic life. They are also detrimental to ecosystems as they block sunlight from reaching plants, which prevents them from growing. Additionally, these blooms cause dead zones in the water, resulting in a decrease in oxygen for aquatic life.

dead fish in contaminated lake

Threat to Human and Animal Health

Cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) are usually a harmful byproduct of toxic algal blooms. While these bacteria don’t infect people or animals like other bacteria, some cyanobacteria species produce potent, natural poisons called cyanotoxins. The cyanobacteria then release these toxic compounds into the water, accumulating rapidly and creating a harmful algal bloom, or HAB.

People exposed to cyanotoxins, specifically by drinking contaminated water, may experience the following symptoms, depending on the cyanotoxin involved:

  • Liver damage
  • Diarrhea
  • Severe fevers
  • Gastroenteritis
  • Vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Neurological symptoms (like dizziness and muscle weakness)

Animals, especially pets that drink contaminated water, can get sick from cyanotoxins, too. Dogs and cats are particularly at risk of poisoning because they consume the same tap water.

Cyanobacteria and cyanotoxins can harm pet fish and other aquatic animals in several ways. If you use water containing large amounts of cyanobacteria to fill your fish tank or aquarium, it can make it difficult for them to breathe. That’s because a densely concentrated bloom can deplete oxygen in the water due to the high respiratory rate of algae or when cyanobacteria decay.

Mammals exposed to cyanotoxins may exhibit several signs, depending on their level of exposure. These symptoms include the following:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Death within hours or days
  • Liver failure
  • Excessive salivation
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue

The long-term health effects of cyanotoxin exposure in people and animals are yet to be discovered. And because we’re still learning about the long-term effects, keeping yourself and your pets safe is essential.

Related: Deadly Bacteria Behind Melioidosis Now in the U.S.: A Threat to Well Water Quality?

Economic Impacts

Nutrient pollution not only causes harm to the environment, wildlife, and human and animal health. It also has significant economic consequences. When algal blooms form, they may discolor the water and cause a foul odor, making it unappealing for tourists. This can lead to a decrease in tourism, hurting local businesses and economies that rely on visitors.

The fishing industry may also feel the effects of nutrient pollution. The toxins produced by algal blooms can harm or kill fish and other aquatic life, reducing the populations of valuable species and making it difficult for fishing operations to maintain their livelihoods.

Beyond that, a waterbody becomes less desirable and less valuable when polluted. As expected, people are less likely to purchase property near a contaminated waterbody, leading to decreased property values in the area.

Are algal blooms a threat to drinking water quality?

As mentioned earlier, algal blooms usually occur in surface waters, such as lakes, ponds, rivers, and reservoirs. Interestingly, some public water systems use water from one or more sources to treat and distribute to consumers connected to the municipal line.

In many cases, water treatment facilities can remove cyanobacteria and cyanotoxins from the water during treatment, but these methods aren’t always a part of every utility’s standard treatment process. As a result, cyanotoxins from surface water sources can escape through a utility’s treatment system, slither across the pipe network, and end up in your drinking water supply at home.

People who rely on water from private wells are also at risk of exposure to toxic algae and cyanobacteria. Algal growths are most likely to form in well water because the water remains stagnant and frequently contains excess nitrogen and phosphorous. Too many nutrients in well water can occur if the well is located near agricultural areas.

Increases in water temperature and high pH levels (alkaline water) can also cause algae to grow in wells. Even further, wells within 100 feet of an algae-affected water body may be susceptible to water intrusion, potentially causing cyanotoxins to escape into the well.

Under these conditions, there’s a high chance that you’ll have to deal with algal blooms – unless you have a treatment system installed in your home to defend against algal threats potentially in your well water.

State and Community Efforts to Address Wyoming’s Nutrient Pollution Problem

The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) says they’ve teamed up with the Wyoming Nutrient Work Group to create a plan of action against nutrient pollution in the state’s waterways.

Their strategy, called the Wyoming Nutrient Strategy, outlines critical priorities such as setting numeric nutrient standards, taking proactive steps to reduce nutrient pollution in priority watersheds, and working with partners like the Wyoming Department of Health and the Wyoming Livestock Board to tackle potentially harmful algal blooms.

State and community leaders are also working together to implement best management practices for fertilizer use, improve wastewater treatment facilities, and educate the public about the importance of protecting surface waters.

How to Remove Harmful Cyanobacteria and Cyanotoxins from Your Drinking Water

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SpringWell Water Filter & Salt Free Water Softener

Advanced water treatment systems, such as reverse osmosis and activated carbon water filters, can be very effective against harmful cyanotoxins in drinking water.

Reverse osmosis filters force the polluted water through a semipermeable membrane to remove impurities, including cyanotoxins, from the water supply. On the other hand, activated carbon filters use activated carbon to adsorb cyanotoxins and other impurities and contaminants.

Another way to remove cyanobacteria from drinking water is through shock chlorination, which involves adding a high chlorine concentration to the water supply to destroy bacteria. Although this method is effective, there are potential drawbacks, such as the potential for off-tastes and -odors in the water and potential health concerns due to long-term exposure to chlorine.

However, there are alternatives to using chlorine in the shock chlorination process. For example, some individuals prefer an ultraviolet (U.V.) water purification system, a chemical-free alternative that uses U.V. light to kill bacteria and other microorganisms in the water. Another option is ozonation, which uses ozone gas to disinfect water instead of chlorine.

Learn more: Purifying Your Well Water with Chlorine: Is it the Safest Option? | How Do U.V. Systems Work, and Why Do You Need One for Your Home?

Final Thoughts

Despite ongoing drought issues, Wyoming is home to clean, cold rivers and streams. However, nutrient pollution has become an ugly part of its reality, as excessive nitrogen and phosphorus threaten its environment, human health, and economy.

Thankfully, the DEQ and the Wyoming Nutrient Work Group are taking proactive steps to address this problem by developing the Wyoming Nutrient Strategy and working with various stakeholders to implement numeric nutrient criteria and reduction efforts in priority watersheds.

While there is still much work to be done, residents can play their part. An excellent place to start is to invest in a premium reverse osmosis or carbon filter and a U.V. water purification system to protect against cyanobacteria and cyanotoxins potentially lurking in their water supplies. Residents should also be mindful of their pet’s waste, select eco-friendly lawn care options, and choose sustainable transportation methods to help reduce nutrients in surrounding waterways.