Utah Lake could become toxic again this summer

A couple of boats sail through discolored water caused by an algae bloom near the Lindon Marina in Utah Lake in Lindon, Utah. Utah County health officials said at least eight people have fallen ill after interactions in Utah Lake, which has a potentially toxic algae bloom. (Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)
Two boats sail through discolored water caused by an algae bloom near the Lindon Marina in Utah Lake in Lindon, Utah last summer. (Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

Utah County Health Department public information officer Aislynn Tolman-Hill was shocked at the sight and smell of the green mass that had overcome Utah Lake as her team gathered water samples from what appeared to be the largest algal bloom in Utah’s history. In her 15 years of public health experience, she had never seen an algal bloom as close to the scope and size of what she saw that day last summer.

The Utah County Health Department is planning to be prepared earlier in the season in case an algal bloom occurs. Tolman-Hill said the department spent about $70,000 on its algal bloom response last summer and is are working to develop a plan to better manage resources in the future.

“We know that we don’t have the resources to respond to this in the future, so that is a real challenge for us because we still have to do our day-to-day work,” Tolman-Hill said. “We had staff that just were not compensated for their time.”

Tolman-Hill said a heavy snow run-off from the winter season can deepen the lake and prevent a significant algal bloom, but it is difficult to predict future conditions.

Utah Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville, a public interest lawyer, said it’s too difficult to predict whether last summer’s Utah weather conditions will occur again this year, but the Division of Water Quality is trying to look for ways to solve the problem, even though many factors are out of its control.

He said he doubts the issue will spark any new legislation or additional funding in 2017 because it would require a lot of money for a speculative benefit.

Hawkes said the challenge is the number of people who are part of the Utah Lake system, which has affected the depth and nutrients of the lake.

“How much of the nutrients have been deposited there over a hundred years of human activity, and how much of it is new? It’s really hard to say, ‘If we do this step, then we will get this result,’ because there are so many other wild cards that nature and history are dealing you,” Hawkes said.

In mid-July 2016, the Utah County Health Department was notified by a local resident of the algal bloom in Utah Lake. They teamed up with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality in a response that lasted several months, and Tolman-Hill was part of the response.

Algal blooms on Utah Lake are not uncommon. In fact, Utah Lake hosts a variety of ideal conditions for blue-green algae to grow. Algae thrives in shallow, stagnant and warm water that has an excess of nutrients the algae can feed on.

The agriculture and livestock surrounding the lake contribute to the nutrient count, as well as several water treatment facilities releasing treated water, with a slightly higher nutrient content, back into the lake.

These features, coupled with the hot and stagnant environmental conditions during summer 2016, provided the perfect breeding ground for an algal bloom of historic proportions, both in Utah and nationwide.

“We did not expect to see them so early last summer,” Tolman-Hill said. “Typically you would see an algal bloom late summer to early fall, even into late fall, but we were seeing it mid-July, and that was very early.”

Tolman-Hill said the World Health Organization told her team the recreational water would not be safe for humans or animals if their sampling had more than 10 million cyanobacteria cells per milliliter of water.

“The ones we were seeing were 40 million cells per milliliter,” Tolman-Hill said. “Those numbers were truly astronomically high.”

Tolman-Hill said she and her team felt it was within their public health authority to shut down Utah Lake in its entirety before they received their results on toxicity levels.

“If the water was ingested if you were swimming, that really can be very damaging,” Tolman-Hill said. “We don’t have the testing availability here in Utah, so our water samples had to be sent to Florida, which was a problem for us.”

Common symptoms associated with a cyanobacteria poisoning include a body rash, fever, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. Although those affected can recover from the illness, Tolman-Hill said certain kinds of toxins can affect parts of the brain and can even be fatal.

She also said some of the environmental health staff were on the lake gathering samples while it was closed, and their airboat operator experienced some of the symptoms of cyanobacterial poisoning.

Hawkes said sometimes it’s hard to separate fact from fiction when searching for documentation about people who could be affected by a toxic algal bloom.

“We know that these blooms cause toxins that can be deadly for fish and harmful to humans, but you start looking through the documentation and see if many people have died from algal blooms, and you don’t really see it,” Hawkes said.

Hawkes said the biggest effect on animal life would be the number of dead fish because of the lack of oxygen in the water, but other impacts on animals are hard to measure.

Brent Money, a beef cattle rancher in Benjamin, Utah, owns property bordering Utah Lake where he places cattle in the winter.

Money said he wasn’t concerned about his livestock when the algal bloom occurred because they were on the mountain when the lake was shut down.

“Most people that have livestock around the lake don’t depend on the lake for watering,” Money said. “That lake fluctuates quite a bit, so if that was their only source of water, it would be pretty inconsistent. Plus the (livestock) don’t like it very much.”

Money said the algal bloom would have concerned him if he depended on Utah Lake for agricultural purposes.

Other bodies of water in Utah were also affected by the algae. The Jordan River, a secondary water source for Utah, was affected. Later, the cyanobacteria was discovered in Scofield Reservoir and Payson Lakes. Tolman-Hill said they were still finding algae under the ice in Payson Lakes in October.

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