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A deep dive into Utah Lake: part 2

Blackbirds roost in partially submerged reeds in a large lake. A distant island and mountains are in the background.
Utah State Parks
Blackbirds roost in the reeds just offshore in Utah Lake.

This is Utah Lake. It’s the largest freshwater body in the state, and it’s well known for supporting a variety of wildlife, and recreation activities. But Utah Lake is also well known for some less appealing things: harmful algal blooms, invasive species and contaminated sediments, to name a few.

Current and proposed restoration efforts have been working to address these issues, but how did these environmental issues come about in the first place? What does a healthy Utah Lake look like, and what is needed to return the lake to a healthy state?

Mary Murdock Meyer is the Chief Executive of the Timpanogos Nation, whose ancestral homelands encompass Utah Lake. She said the lake was once a productive ecosystem with a diverse array of fish and plants that supported her people since time immemorial.

“My son did some research years ago, and he has a list of all the fish that were killed out of that lake. There's like nine species that just don't exist anymore,” Meyer said.

Despite its ecological degradation, the Timpanogos still rely on its resources.

“Our people still go out and gather them, the reeds that grow around there…we used them to build the shafts of arrows. I have an uncle that drives four states to gather those reeds,” Meyer said.

Meyer explained that the banks of the lake historically served as an important site for the Timpanogos people to gather and celebrate each year and she hopes to see the tradition preserved.

“The people out there should be able to enjoy that lake. And then we should have the opportunity to hold our festivities there if we so desire, because that was what we did for years,” Meyer said.

Ben Abbott, an assistant professor of aquatic ecology at Brigham Young University, said white settlers have a long history of impacting Utah Lake.

“We introduced exotic fish to replace the native ones, we over-harvested. We changed the lake’s hydrology to meet our immediate needs, not anticipating the feedbacks and impacts that this would have on the whole valley,” Abbott said in a press conference on the shore of Utah Lake.

Like much of the Wasatch Front, Utah County is experiencing unprecedented population growth. As the population increases, the amount of nutrients flowing into the lake grows with it. Raw sewage was dumped into the lake through 1967, and agricultural runoff, full of fertilizers like phosphorus, has been spilling into the lake for decades, leading to recurrent harmful algal blooms. This toxic algae sickens swimmers and pets and can be fatal, and phosphorus and mineral salt levels have been so high at times they have exceeded Clean Water Act limits.

Utah Lake’s water is also high in calcite, a mineral that makes its waters cloudy, but Greg Carling, an associate professor of geology at Brigham Young University, said this is normal for Utah Lake.

“The lake has always been kind of cloudy. As best we can tell, it's never been a clear lake,” Carling said.

The lake is exceedingly shallow, with a maximum depth of only 15 feet. However, its waters are so cloudy that little light reaches the bottom of the lake, which limits harmful algae growth.

“If they were able to make the lake clear that actually could make it so that the algae are better off. So more sunlight would reach through the water column and actually could contribute to more algal blooms,” Carling said.

While dredging could deepen the lake and remove sediments that are high in phosphorus, research shows that contamination is limited to parts of the lakebed. Deepening the lake may have unintended consequences as well.

“When you have an algal bloom, that algae falls to the bottom of the lake and decomposes, and you get the creation of dead zones. These areas don't have enough oxygen to support fish life, and that can result in the release of pollutants from the sediment and nutrients that then can make the algal blooms worse,” Abbott explained.

Aside from supporting a complicated ecosystem, Utah Lake is also unique geologically. The lake sits above deep, mucky sediment, and is located on the Wasatch fault, a source of earthquakes in the area. This could spell trouble for the stability of the lakebed.

“There's thousands of feet of loose, unconsolidated sediment below the lake bed, and we live along the Wasatch fault…if there happened to be a magnitude six or seven earthquake, I imagine that could cause some serious damage. So, the Wasatch Front experiences a big earthquake every few 100 years,” Carling said.

Instead of writing off Utah Lake as a toxic, unstable waterbody, Utahns are recognizing the lake’s importance.

“This desert lake is an island of water in the vast sea of land that is the Great Basin. Consequently, it is a keystone ecosystem in western North America, supporting tens of millions of birds, fish and other species,” Abbott explained.

Restoration projects have already begun on the lake to reverse the ecological harm. Abbott said significant progress has already been made around the lake, and continuation of long-term projects will keep improving the lake over time.

“There are hundreds of legitimate restoration projects, education projects going on, within and around Utah Lake…we're seeing declining algal blooms and recovering fish and bird species and vegetation species. Indeed, one of the biggest successes is the down-listing of the June Sucker, which is a threatened fish...because of these long term, best practice, restoration projects,” Abbott said.

In part three of "A Deep Dive into Utah Lake", we will explore details of the permitting process Lake Restoration Solutions must complete to get the project approved.

Aimee Van Tatenhove is a science reporter at UPR. She spends most of her time interviewing people doing interesting research in Utah and writing stories about wildlife, new technologies and local happenings. She is also a PhD student at Utah State University, studying white pelicans in the Great Salt Lake, so she thinks about birds a lot! She also loves fishing, skiing, baking, and gardening when she has a little free time.
Ellis Juhlin is a science reporter here at Utah Public Radio and a Master's Student at Utah State. She studies Ferruginous Hawk nestlings and the factors that influence their health. She loves our natural world and being part of wildlife research. Now, getting to communicate that kind of research to the UPR listeners through this position makes her love what she does even more. In her free time, you can find her outside on a trail with her partner Matt and her goofy pups Dodger and Finley. They love living in a place where there are year-round adventures to be had!