Snyderville Basin water district examines potential impact of hormones on fish
July 18, 2018
Scientists are becoming increasingly aware that what we put into our bodies also ends up back into the environment, including the pharmaceuticals and hormones we take.
To better understand the impacts of those synthetic compounds on the ecosystem, the Snyderville Basin Water Reclamation District is partnering with Baylor University on a study to determine the effect of hormones on the local fish population. The water district is responsible for collecting and treating wastewater from more than 11,000 homes and businesses within 102 square miles in Park City and the Snyderville Basin.
Researchers are currently tracking hormone levels in fish in East Canyon Creek, which is home to a sensitive species — the Bonneville cutthroat trout. The study is a follow up to previous research that has examined the levels of pharmaceuticals and hormones in the creeks the water district serves.
Mike Luers, general manager of the water district, said studies have shown that, in certain conditions, male fish can become feminized because of the amounts of hormones they are exposed to from sources such as birth control drugs. The hormones are likely making their way into the wastewater because the water district does not have a filtration system to extract the compounds before they reach local streams.
“And this is somewhat of a harbinger of things to come because we have a fast-growing community on a small mountain stream that we discharge into,” Mike Luers, general manager of the Snyderville Basin Water Reclamation District
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To run the tests, the researchers are placing fish in a number of cages throughout the creek. Luers said they will come back every few days through Sunday to collect the fish and take water samples to examine the compounds in their livers and blood. The results of the study won't be available until the fall of 2019.
"The bottom line of this study is at what level can we expect permanent damage to the local fish populations?" he said.
As the community continues to grow, the amount of wastewater the water district treats increases, Luers said. However, he said, the water levels in the streams are staying the same or decreasing, meaning the concentration of the chemicals is rising.
"The ratio is changing and we know at some point in time there is going to be a tipping point where there is permanent damage done," he said. "This study specifically looks at where that tipping point is so we can plan for it."
The fish population will take the brunt of the environmental impact, Luers said. But, he emphasized that will ultimately affect the whole ecosystem.
The next big question, he said, is whether the hormones are dangerous to humans.
"These concentrations are really low, but fish live in the water 24/7," he said. "We have done some studies in the past where we sample the edible portion of the trout and we have found pharmaceuticals, such as Prozac, in those samples. But, they are at very low concentrations that are thousands of times below the therapeutic dose."
Luers said the compounds that end up in the water eventually travel downstream to a reservoir used for drinking. But, he said, the chemicals are is so diluted at that point there are only trace amounts.
"The biggest thing about this is educating the public that this problem exists and it's not easily solved," he said. "It is horribly expensive to treat. At just this plant (East Canyon Creek), we are talking in the range of $29 million just to install equipment to remove this.
"And this is somewhat of a harbinger of things to come because we have a fast-growing community on a small mountain stream that we discharge into," he added. "We are going to meet this threshold. It is inevitable."
Bryan W. Brooks, a professor within the Department of Environmental Science Center for Reservoir and Aquatic Systems Research at Baylor University, said Summit County is in a unique situation because of its water issues and relevance to the region where similar population growth is happening. Brooks highlighted the role water utilities play in reclaiming water for drinking, recreation and agriculture. He said it's critical to ensure that stream flows are maintained so local fish populations can survive.
"We have to make sure we are reclaiming that water for the uses we plan on down the line," he said. "That is where utilities and local leadership is critical. Water issues are always local issues. But, global mega trends don't care who is in elected office or not. We will continue to see growth in this area that could stress water resources so this is relevant now when we have less snowpack, but more so in the future. This can help make decisions for other communities and will help us think about things in broader terms."
The Snyderville Basin Water Reclamation District operates and maintains two reclamation facilities, 12 pump stations and more than 260 miles of pipelines.