Utah Lake Commission works on solving algal blooms, attracting more visitors

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The first reports of the toxic blooms this year have been confirmed at Pelican Bay in Saratoga Springs. The Utah Lake Commission is doing everything they can to keep them from spreading. (Nikki Wilson)

The Utah Lake Commission is searching for answers after recent struggles with algal blooms. The first reports of the toxic blooms this year have already been confirmed at Pelican Bay in Saratoga Springs, and the commission is doing everything they can to keep the blooms from spreading.

“This summer, we’re working on different pilot projects on algae treatments,” said Utah Lake Commission Director Eric Ellis. “We’re hoping to take care of the blooms, at least the ones taking place in a few of our marinas, to see if that can impact positively the rest of the lake.”

The blooms, caused by cyanobacteria in the water, have wreaked a fair amount of havoc on Utah Lake in recent years. In the summers of both 2016 and 2018, the Utah County Health Department issued algal bloom warnings for the entire lake, encouraging people and pets to stay out. In 2014, a dog was reportedly killed from overexposure to the toxic bacteria.   

Blue-green algae are found in many freshwater ecosystems around the world, according to health officials. Certain conditions can cause the algae to spread, however, including warm temperatures, a high level of nutrients in the water and shallow water levels.

Modern technology has heightened the public’s awareness of the blooms, according to Ellis. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Water Quality monitors the lake’s algae levels every few days via satellite.

“It’s a natural system. We just are hyper-aware of it these days with our increase in monitoring,” Ellis said.

The conditions in Utah Lake, including warm temperatures, a high level of nutrients in the water and shallow water levels, cause algae to spread. (Nikki Wilson)

Ellis believes Utah Lake’s easy access and close proximity to such a large percentage of Utah’s population magnifies its issues with algal blooms even while other lakes around the state experience similar struggles.

“The same thing is happening in most of Utah’s reservoirs, just at a much lower level of monitoring,” Ellis said. “Utah Lake just happens to be close. There’s over half a million people right next to it, so it gets an increased amount of attention. People are super aware the moment we get even just a little bit of algae.”

While the commission has gone as far as recently asking the general public to submit proposals on how to solve the algal blooms, they realize how difficult the task really is. According to health officials, the dying off of one algal bloom creates ideal circumstances for the next one to take place.

The spread of algal blooms may be essentially impossible to stop, at least for now, but Ellis hopes the large size of the lake can attract visitors despite early reports of the blooms.

“What people don’t sometimes realize is that when we have a three-acre algae bloom in a corner of the lake in a marina, the remaining 96,000 plus acres of lake surface doesn’t have any algae whatsoever,” Ellis said.

Utah Lake State Park Manager Joshua Holt says the algal blooms have had a big impact on the lake’s visitation in recent years.

“As soon as it comes out that algae is somewhere on the lake, the visitation that we see at Utah Lake State Park really takes a hit,” Holt said. “I have even had camping reservations cancel within hours of reports of algae.”

 

Utah Lake Commission Director Eric Ellis said that many don’t realize algae blooms are limited to small sections of the lake, leaving the vast majority of the lake algae free. (Nikki Wilson)

Holt added that although there is only one confirmed report of algae on the lake so far this season, its effects have already been seen.

“At a time of year when we should be seeing filled parking lots and lots of boating traffic, we are only seeing a handful of boats come in,” Holt said.

Nearby reservoirs Deer Creek and Jordanelle have seen a dramatic increase in visitors amid Utah Lake’s recent algae struggles. Utah Lake has historically been the most popular water recreation spot in both Utah and Wasatch counties, had just over 93,000 visitors in the 2018 fiscal year. Deer Creek had over 415,000 and Jordanelle saw over 606,000.

“Even though those two reservoirs are a lot colder and you have to drive all the way up Provo Canyon to get to them, people are willing to do it,” Ellis said. “They’d rather do that than deal with isolated blooms on Utah Lake.”

In addition to looking into solving the algal blooms, the Utah Lake Commission has undertaken multiple projects in recent years with hopes to attract more visitors. The commission has added sand to some of the lake’s most popular beaches, dredged the bottom of marinas to improve accessibility during low-water years and removed several million pounds of carp, which had destroyed underwater cover for smaller fish from their predators.

The commission is also cleaning the area where the Geneva Steel mill operated for over 50 years, located near present-day Vineyard, amid questions of whether or not the mill left contaminated groundwater seeping toward Utah Lake.

“Mitigation work at the Geneva Steel site has been taking place for a few years now to remove the tailings piles and remove those areas,” Ellis said. “There are some settling ponds that need some work before we can develop a community fishery. But while there is a cleanup site near the shoreline at this point, not a lot of residue has been discovered in the lake itself.”

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