Utah Lake, once a popular destination for boating, fishing and water sports, is currently off-limits due to the largest algal bloom ever recorded in the area. The algal bloom has attracted high levels of toxin-producing bacteria. As of July 28, boats are allowed in the lake, but swimmers are not.
The bacteria in the water, called cyanobacteria, has turned many areas of the lake green. Utah Department of Health Communications Director Nicholas Rupp said the water becomes dangerous when the level of cyanobacteria passes 100,000 cells per milliliter.
“We are advising citizens to not be in or on the water because of the potential for toxins,” Rupp said. “It varies a lot depending on the location and the concentration of the toxins, but the potential is there to make someone quite ill.”
Symptoms of prolonged exposure to the toxins produced by these bacteria in Utah Lake include nausea, headaches, rashes and gastrointestinal problems. In 2014, a dog was reportedly killed by overexposure to the toxins.
While the lake itself is closed to the public, the Utah Lake State Park remains open for citizens to enjoy the hiking trails, campsites and other sporting activities. Some businesses that depend on the lake have suffered significant losses.
Ron Madson, owner and operator of the Lindon Marina, makes his living through services such as sailing lessons and boating equipment rentals. He also oversees the activity at the boat launch and marina, which are owned by the state of Utah. Madson has held this position for four years.
“In my four years, the lake has never been closed,” Madson said. “Before, they did some advisories and warnings to stay out of algae patches.”
Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) water quality manager Jeff Ostermiller said his department is trying to initiate a new regulation on phosphorus outputs from facilities surrounding the lake. Phosphorus is the primary nutrient that facilitates these harmful blooms. If implemented, these new legal limits on phosphorus runoff could decrease the amount of phosphorus in the lake by two thirds, according to DEQ estimates. Citizens can help ensure that Utah Lake bacteria remain at safe levels in the future, Ostermiller said, by backing the new regulations.
“People need to understand that many of these facilities are older and in need of some infrastructure upgrades anyway,” Ostermiller said. “Certainly one thing people can do (to keep the lake safe) would be to support the plan.”
Ostermiller noted that another simple way to help solve the problem would be for Utah residents to limit their personal outputs of phosphorus and fertilize lawns properly.
“Make sure you fertilize according to the instructions and clean up afterwards,” Ostermiller said. “If you leave fertilizer on the sidewalk and the sprinklers come on, or rain, it takes it to the storm drains which eventually end up in Utah Lake.”
According to Madson, the lake’s water level usually rises several feet during spring runoff, which occurs between the beginning of May and the middle of June. This year Utah Lake is four feet below its average water level. Lindon Marina, which usually sits at six to eight feet in depth, is currently around two feet.
The lower water level in Utah Lake, combined with the hot weather, has created warmer water conditions that the bacteria can thrive in. This heated water, plus the abundance of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen from wastewater treatment plants and fertilizers, are possible explanations for this year’s algal bloom being so severe.
Madson has expressed frustration that Utah Lake did not receive its fair share of the spring runoff this year, which could have diluted the level of bacteria and thus prevented the closure of the lake.
“On July 15, Deer Creek Reservoir was a 82 percent water capacity, Jordan was at about 90 percent and Utah Lake was at 44.5 percent capacity,” Madson said. “A decision was made to keep Utah Lake at a far lower level. We didn’t get that runoff this year.”
The concentration of bacteria in the lake appears to be in a slow decline and members of the Utah County Health Department have been sampling the water regularly to determine when it will be safe again.