By Benjamin W. Abbott, Isabella Errigo, Andrew Follett, Gabriella Lawson, Haley Moon, Kevin Shurtleff, Kristina Davis, Kaye Nelson, Sam Rushforth, Scott Abbott, and Weihong Wang.
First published on July 29, 2021.
Utah Lake is a huge and unique waterbody at the heart of Utah Valley. Though it is one of the largest freshwater lakes west of the Mississippi River, many in our community know little about its history, ecology, and importance to our future. As our community grows, we need to understand Utah Lake so we can preserve and protect this keystone ecosystem for future generations.
While we know humans can live in harmony with Utah Lake (the Timpanogos Nation and their predecessors did so for thousands of years), the lake is facing unprecedented challenges. With 600,000 people now living in its watershed, Utah Lake has suffered major issues, including elevated trace metal concentrations, harmful algal blooms due to excessive nutrients, invasive species, and reduced water flow from diversions and climate change.
Numerous scientific studies involving researchers, managers, and citizen scientists from around Utah Lake have discovered sound ways to rejuvenate Utah Lake. Unfortunately, some people have tried to politicize the lake by making claims about its status and future that aren’t based on scientific information or environmental law. We often see opinion pieces and social media posts that seem to be describing an alternative reality where the lake is described as poisoned or dying.
As a group of concerned researchers and community members, we have put together this article with frequently asked questions about Utah Lake. While there is much we are still learning about the complex Utah Lake ecosystem, we have tried to compile the best available information in a nontechnical format.
If you want to dive deeper, check out the links to other resources at the bottom of the document. If you find an error or know of a resource that we’ve missed, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll update the article as soon as we can.
An aerial view of Lehi and other communities on the north shore of Utah Lake.
Toggle ItemUtah Lake Stats
- Lake size: ~145 square miles (3rd largest lake in the western U.S.)
- Elevation: 4489’ above sea level (this “Compromise level” was set by law in 1885 and updated in 1986)
- Depth: 9’ (average), 18’ (maximum)
- Watershed size: 2950 square miles
- Habitat for 226 species of birds, 49 mammals, 18 fish, and 16 amphibians and reptiles
- Average volume of water: 902,000 acre-feet (1.1 cubic kilometer)
- Water inflows (acre-feet per year): 930,000
- Rivers: 422,000 (Provo, Spanish Fork, American Fork, Hobble Creek, etc.)
- Groundwater: 380,000
- Direct precipitation: 128,000
- Water outflows (acre-feet per year): 930,000
- Jordan River: 430,000
- Evaporation: 350,000
- Groundwater: 150,000
- Average water residence time: 6 months
- First settlement: Unknown, but at least 10,000 years ago
- Current population: ~600,000 in the watershed
- Projected population in 2050: 1,300,000
Map of the Utah Lake watershed. Data from the Utah Geospatial Resource Center
Toggle ItemA 5-minute overview
A vibrant oasis at the heart of Utah ValleyUtah Lake is a keystone ecosystem and the centerpiece of our community, providing critical habitat, abundant recreational opportunities, and invaluable ecosystem services such as removing pollution and creating local precipitation. For example, 35 million migratory birds fuel up or nest in and around the lake every year, and our world-class snow depends in part on the evaporation from Utah Lake. Protecting this unique ecosystem is our duty and opportunity to ensure a flourishing Utah Valley for our children.
Centuries of sustenance and communityPeople have inhabited the shores of Utah Lake for at least 10,000 years. At that time, there were 13 native fish species, a different plant community, and dozens of native mollusks that created a truly unique and resilient food web. Utah Lake sustained Native Americans such as the Timpanogos Nation and later the Mormon settlers, who would not have survived their first winters without the abundant fish and wildlife. Despite changes to the lake’s hydrology and biology, Utah Lake remained the cultural center of Utah Valley with resorts, dance boats, and air tours through the 1900s.
Children play on the shore of Utah Lake in Vineyard.
False narratives about Utah Lake’s past and future
Utah Lake is one of the most misunderstood ecosystems in our state. Contrary to false claims of pending destruction, Utah Lake is on the road to recovery in many ways. The native June sucker are rebounding, water flow has been ensured by cooperative agreements, and wastewater improvements are reducing nutrient flows. Harmful algal blooms are on the decline for most of the lake, and we have the opportunity of further restoration with research and creative public-private partnerships.
Clear and present dangerSome of the misinformation about Utah Lake has been spread intentionally by developers who want to permanently change the lake. Drastic proposals to build islands or causeways would irreversibly damage Utah Lake, costing taxpayers millions and depriving future generations of the lake's beauty and ecosystem services. In this time of dramatic change, we need evidence-based management and legislation to protect and restore this unique, beautiful, and dynamic lake.
Progress and prioritiesFor the past 30 years, hundreds of projects have contributed to the conservation and restoration of Utah Lake. Wildlife protections, delta restorations, wastewater treatment, and invasive species removal are making measurable progress. Greater support for conservation and research will have big dividends for all the inhabitants (human, fish, and otherwise) of Utah Valley. Specifically, we recommend:
- Fostering community connection and understanding through education and recreation
- Reducing pollutants by upgrading wastewater treatment and improving nutrient management in the watershed
- Removing invasive species in ecologically-sound ways
- Planning smart development with conservation-minded plans
- Protecting the lake from irresponsible and dangerous proposals that threaten its health and our future
Toggle ItemWhat is the history of Utah Lake?
The deep pastUtah Lake has a long and fascinating geological and human history. For example, if you were standing on the shore of Utah Lake 20,000 years ago, you would be covered by 500 feet of water! At that time, an inland sea named Lake Bonneville covered much of Utah. Tributaries to Lake Bonneville deposited sediment, creating a flat valley floor and benches where many of our towns and cities are now built. Like the Utah Lake system today, Lake Bonneville didn’t have an outlet to the ocean. Around 15,000 years ago, water levels got so high that the lake spilled into the Snake River Valley in Idaho. In just days, much of the lake drained to the Pacific in the second largest known flood in geologic history! The drier climate after this Bonneville Flood resulted in the lake eventually shrinking until only the Great Salt Lake, Utah Lake, and Sevier Lake remained. From about 5,000 years ago until the 1800s, Utah Lake has fluctuated around its current elevation of 4,500’ above sea level.
The former extent of Lake Bonneville. After the Bonneville Flood drained much of the lake water to the Pacific Ocean 14,500 years ago, climate change led to the gradual drying of the lake until only the Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake remained. Data from the Utah Geospatial Resource Center
The peoples of Utah LakeThe Utah Lake area has been a crossroads of humanity for at least 10,000 years. That’s when the Clovis people populated parts of the Great Basin. Later, the Fremont and Numic peoples were joined in about 1400 AD by the Athapascans (ancestors to the Navajo and Apache tribes). Until the end of the 1800s, the Utah Lake area was primarily inhabited by Eastern Shoshone, Paiute, Goshute, and Ute peoples (more detailed history here).
The first contact with Europeans is believed to have occurred in 1776, when Father Silvestre Velez de Escalante passed through Utah Valley. The Timpanogos Nation inhabited a large portion of central and eastern Utah at that time, led by Chief Turunianchi. The Timpanogos were often concentrated around Utah Lake, which was described as an oasis because of the abundant freshwater fish, water birds, and other wildlife that occupied its shallow waters, wetlands, and river deltas. In 1847, Brigham Young arrived with the Mormon Pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley. Two years later, Young sent Mormon settlers south to establish Fort Utah on the banks of the Timpanogos River—now known at the Provo River. During crop failures in 1855-1856, fish from Utah Lake saved many Mormon settlers in both the Utah and Salt Lake Valleys from starvation.
Painting of Chief Walkara by Solomon Carvalho (mid 1800s).
Unfortunately, relations between the Mormons and the Timpanogos soured. During years of conflict called Walkara’s War, Chief Sowiette, Chief Walkara, and many others negotiated and fought to protect their homeland, eventually resulting in a peace agreement with Brigham Young. In 1865, tensions escalated again in what is called the Black Hawk War, which resulted in the death of hundreds of Timpanogos, Utes, and Mormon settlers. As part of a peace treaty, Chief Tabby-To-Kwanah led the Timpanogos to join the Northern Shoshone in the Uinta Valley Reservation, which had been created by President Abraham Lincoln in 1861.
Growing population and growing pressureIn the following century, Utah Valley saw unprecedented growth and change. Widespread agriculture and a growing population led to ditches, canals, and eventually the rerouting of the entire Provo River from Provo Bay to the west, where it currently enters Utah Lake. There were diversions in all the major tributaries to Utah Lake (Provo, Spanish Fork, American Fork, Hobble Creek, Benjamin Slough, and Currant Creek). Some tributaries became seasonally dry (Provo River) or permanently disconnected from the lake (Hobble Creek). As the water flow to Utah Lake decreased, the pollution delivery skyrocketed. Sewage, industrial, and agricultural runoff from the surrounding cities and farms added nutrients, pesticides, metals, and other pollutants. These contaminants were dumped directly in the lake or were transported there by rivers and groundwater.
Harvest of June sucker and other native fish from the shore of Utah Lake in 1855. Courtesy of the June Sucker Recovery history.
In addition to the loss of water and increase in pollution, overfishing was causing large declines in the native fish populations. Up to that point, Utah Lake had been an incredibly productive fishery. After the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad—which enabled rapid transport of live fish—the settlers started introducing new species in an attempt to rejuvenate the commercial and subsistence fishery of Utah Lake. Black bullhead catfish were introduced in 1872. In 1883, there was an initial release of 200 baby common carp. Largemouth bass followed in 1890. Some of these fish did reproduce rapidly, but they put pressure on the native species, permanently changing the lake’s food webs. The intentional or accidental introduction of plants such as phragmites and salt cedar further changed the ecosystem.
Through all this change, Utah Lake remained important culturally, economically, and ecologically. Native and introduced fish species were a major food source and the lake was the center of community activities. Resorts sprung up around the lake, including pavilions, a dance boat, horse tracks, and performance halls (for details about this period, check out the Utah Lake Legacy film produced by the June Sucker Recovery Implementation Program). In the 1900s, recreationalists took to the lake in sailboats, motorboats, and even airplanes.
Rock bottomThe darkest period for Utah Lake arguably occurred during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The lake level dropped 12 feet because of persistent drought conditions and new water diversions (including the world’s largest pumping station at the time). Except for a few pools, Utah Lake was reduced to a dry lakebed. With no water in the lake, the Jordan River (Utah Lake’s sole outlet) stopped flowing, cutting off irrigation for much of Salt Lake County. The Utah governor drove a pickup truck across the lakebed to inspect the situation. The temporary loss of the lake modified local climate and devastated agriculture and property values in both Utah and Salt Lake counties.
Together, the loss of water, increase in pollution, and introduction of invasive species caused permanent damage to the lake’s biodiversity. The Utah sculpin and 10 other native fish went extinct. Native mollusks and plants were also extirpated (eliminated locally) or pushed to extinction, triggering major changes in the aquatic and terrestrial environment that make up the Utah Lake ecosystem.
The river to recoveryAfter the trauma of the lake drying out, management and governance of the Utah Lake watershed changed course. Limits on diversions were implemented and projects to measure and manage river flow were put in place. Coordination among communities increased with the creation of major water projects, including some that piped in water from the Colorado River basin, which is just to the southeast of the Utah Lake watershed. As the population grew, both state and federal regulation of water quality led lakeside communities to start treating their wastewater in the 1950s, reducing nutrient pollution to the lake.
Drawing of the June sucker by David Starr (1891). The June sucker was one of 13 native fish in Utah Lake.
These conservation and restoration efforts got a huge boost in the 1980s when the June Sucker—one of the last surviving native fish—was recognized as an endangered species. Listed in 1987, there were only a few hundred June Sucker remaining in the lake. The endangered status led to greater funding and the creation of a comprehensive restoration plan that involved regulators, water users, developers, wastewater facilities, and fisheries across the state. In 1999, nine local, state, and federal organizations agreed to a comprehensive program to restore habitat and protect the June sucker. Working collaboratively, water flow was restored to the Provo River, Hobble Creek was reconnected to the lake, nutrient standards were tightened for wastewater, and ongoing habitat restoration improved the quality and amount of healthy lakeshore and lakebed. Because of this progress, the June Sucker was delisted in 2021.
Toggle ItemWhy should we care about Utah Lake?
Utah Lake is more than just a scenic backdrop for selfies. This lake is of enormous importance to Utah Valley culturally, ecologically, and economically.
Children throw rocks into Utah Lake from the Lincoln Marina on the south side of the lake.
In the vast, arid expanse of the Great Basin (200,000 square miles of landlocked mountains and valleys), Utah Lake is a vibrant oasis of water and wetland. The lake provides habitat for hundreds of invertebrates, 226 species of birds, 49 mammals, 18 fish, and 16 amphibians and reptiles. Its wetlands and shorelines are a major migration corridor for 35 million birds, including cranes, eagles, pelicans, and shorebirds that come from as far as Alaska and Patagonia to nest or feed. The deltas and lakebed are as productive as tropical rainforests per square foot, supporting a dense food web of plants, invertebrates (mollusks, insects, arachnids, etc.), and consumers (fish, birds, mammals, and people).
The lake freely provides ecosystem services that most of us never think about. Utah Lake supports everything from skiing at Sundance, to growing our famous Utah cherries, to enjoying our clean mountain environment. For example, Utah Lake removes hundreds of tons of excess nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus from our wastewater, and it processes or stores other pollutants including arsenic, mercury, and sulfur from coal-fired powerplants. Utah Lake regulates our local climate, with its evaporation decreasing summer temperatures and providing a source of moisture for rain and snow in the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains. Additionally, the water in and from Utah Lake protects our air quality by preventing the lakebed from becoming a major source of dangerous dust. This may not sound like a big deal, but areas that have neglected their terminal lakes (lakes without an outlet) such as Owen’s Lake in California have ended up spending millions each year to keep down the dust.
Though boating and recreation have decreased in the past few years mostly because of misconceptions about the lake, Utah Lake provides world class recreational opportunities (check out this list of 29 things to do at Utah Lake). Most fish and birds in Utah Lake are safe to eat, and you can check current consumption advisories here. Marinas around the lake provide access for boaters who sail, water ski, kayak, windsurf, fish, and hunt. Trails, shorelines, and wetlands provide easy access for all members of our community to spot wildlife, catch fish, paddleboard, or just enjoy the beautiful environment.
Many in our valley also recognize the spiritual importance of Utah Lake. These lands and waters were sacred to the Timpanogos Nation and other indigenous peoples as well as the Mormon Pioneers who would not have survived their first winters without the bounty of the lake. Whatever our personal history and beliefs, conserving the unique beauty and functions of Utah Lake reverences these lands and brings our community together.
Toggle ItemWhat was Utah Lake like ecologically before European settlement?
We are still learning a lot about the ecological history of Utah Lake, but what we do know provides important context for current conservation and restoration efforts.
One of the biggest changes in the lake is the loss of native species and the introduction of invasive ones. Virtually every group of plants, animals, and microorganisms have been affected. Only two of the original 13 native fish species survive in Utah Lake, and the loss of native mollusks (snails, mussels, and clams) continues to this day. Combine this with changes in both water and land plants, and Utah Lake is a very different ecosystem than the Native Timpanogos and Mormon Pioneers would have experienced! Fifteen non-native fish species, including carp, walleye, bass, catfish, and most recently pike have become established in the lake, where they now eat other fish or disturb the lakebed. Likewise, non-native phragmites (the common reed) was introduced as a decorative plant, but it now dominates many of the waterways and lakeshores around Utah Lake. These changes in ecological community have fundamentally changed how Utah Lake works. Despite what we see in movies, both extinction and the establishment of invasive species are effectively permanent.
List of native fish that occurred in Utah Lake before European settlement. Image from the Utah Lake Commission.
The historical clarity of Utah Lake is a point of controversy and continued research. Two factors suggest that Utah Lake has always been relatively cloudy. First, the unique hydrology of the lake causes the constant formation of calcite and apatite in the water, which removes phosphorus and creates a unique milky color. These processes protect the lake from nutrient pollution and are caused by evaporation, which concentrates minerals in the lake water (think of hard water scale deposits on a boiling pan). Second, because Utah Lake is so large and shallow, wind action can easily stir up sediment from the lakebed. However, it is likely that Utah Lake was somewhat clearer in the past than it is today for three reasons: 1. There were no carp, 2. There was more submerged vegetation that could prevent waves and sediment mixing, and 3. There were more native mollusks that filtered the water. Even at that time, the lake was likely a beautiful milky or muddy color for much of the year, except for during snowmelt and periods of little wind when clams and other mollusks could filter the water.
The hydrology of Utah Lake was very different before the water projects of the 1900s. The lake level used to fluctuate more depending on the time of year and amount of snowmelt. Being a large shallow lake, small changes in water level translated into a dynamic shoreline and system of wetlands around much of the lake. Humans now control the amount of water getting to the lake—diverting much of the natural flow and importing water from outside of the basin with pipelines and tunnels. This has the advantage of providing water during drought years and protecting human buildings around the lake, but it comes at the cost of degrading habitat and harming species that depend on natural fluctuations in water flow.
One thing that hasn’t changed substantially is the depth of the lake. Utah Lake has always been shallow. Its bathymetry (underwater topography) was determined by Lake Bonneville, which deposited thick sediments that now make up the living lakebed. Despite claims that Utah Lake used to be deeper, analysis of sediment cores show it has always been a huge and shallow waterbody.
Toggle ItemWhy does Utah Lake have algal blooms?
The global nutrient overloadLike many waterbodies in the U.S. and globally, Utah Lake has been overfertilized, creating a condition called eutrophication. Almost everything humans do—from growing food to using fossil fuels to flushing the toilet—adds nutrients to the environment. Because of this global nutrient overload, approximately 2 in 3 freshwater and estuarine ecosystems worldwide are experiencing various levels of eutrophication. When an ecosystem is overfertilized or eutrophic, there can be an overgrowth of algae and cyanobacteria (another family of photosynthesizers). Besides being unsightly, these blooms can be harmful in two ways. First, the cyanobacteria can produce powerful toxins that can sicken people and animals who are exposed to the water. Second, the overgrowth can create so much organic material that oxygen gets depleted in the water, creating a dead zone where no fish or other animals can survive.
Given the amount of nutrients in Utah Lake, it is classified as hypereutrophic—the highest award in a contest you don’t want to win. However, Utah Lake only experiences occasional blooms usually only over a portion of the lake. In fact, Utah Lake was just ranked in the lowest category of algal bloom severity and persistence by a nationwide survey this year—cleaner than many lakes and reservoirs in Utah. If Utah Lake is hypereutrophic, why doesn’t it have more frequent and severe blooms?
M.S. Shanae Tate presents a 34-year satellite analysis of algal bloom intensity on Utah Lake.
The answer is that the characteristics of Utah Lake make it extremely resilient to algal blooms. Three factors prevent the lake from looking like pea soup year-round. First, the cloudy water of the lake limits light availability, slowing growth of both algae and cyanobacteria below the lake surface. Second, the high rate of evaporation causes constant formation of calcite and apatite, which scrub nutrients from the water or make them difficult to use. Third, the shallow and wide bathymetry of the lake means that even when blooms occur, they don’t create a dead zone because the water is so well mixed. The well-mixed, shallow water also prevents the release of phosphorus and other pollutants from the sediment, which become mobile when oxygen is depleted.
Ultimately, the characteristics that people complain about the most are some of Utah Lake’s most important assets!
Sources of nutrients in the Utah Lake watershedSo where are the nutrients coming from? Congratulations, you just asked the most controversial question about Utah Lake! It is true that we still have a lot to learn about nutrient cycling in Utah Lake, and we need continued research. However, there is an emerging picture of where nutrients come from and how they affect the lake system.
More than a decade ago, the Utah Division of Water Quality commissioned a comprehensive study of Utah Lake nutrients to answer this question. They found that 77% of the phosphorus came from wastewater treatment plants, with the remaining portion coming from agricultural and urban runoff and natural sources. Like any research project, this study had its limitations, for example, it didn’t measure stormwater inputs into the lake. Predictably, some people and organizations challenged the finding that nutrients are mainly from wastewater, and the debate has been raging ever since! Some have claimed that dust deposition from the West Desert or nutrient release from the sediment are much more important than nutrients from human wastewater. The scientific process requires people to challenge each other, so these alternative explanations are actually very useful. Let’s test them against the available evidence.
First, it’s important to know that not all nutrients are created equal. The total amount of phosphorus or nitrogen in the water can be much larger than the fraction that is available for algae and cyanobacteria. Additionally, many forms of nutrients are bound up in organic materials or protected by mineral compounds. It is only the free and reactive nutrients (such as phosphate, nitrate, and ammonium) that can easily be used by algae and cyanobacteria. It is true that dust and river water are often high in total nutrients because of the types of rocks in our mountains, but these natural sources are usually very low in reactive nutrients. This has been confirmed by several studies, including a large citizen science project that collected samples from nearly all the waterbodies in the watershed. On the other hand, wastewater outflows contain the yummiest imaginable nutrients in wonderfully clear water—a perfect recipe for a bloom.
More convincingly, there is a distinct human fingerprint where the blooms are occurring. While blooms are infrequent and have actually decreased for most of the lake over the past 35 years, there are persistent hot spots in Provo Bay and the east shoreline where wastewater treatment plants discharge into the lake. If dust or the natural sediment were causing the blooms, we would expect a consistent pattern across the whole lake, or even more powerful blooms on the west and south side of the lake where there is more evaporation and dust.
M.S. Gabriella Lawson led the largest nutrient experiment ever on Utah Lake in 2019-2020. Here a research technician collects incubation bottles from one of the locations on Utah Lake.
But are we sure that reducing wastewater nutrients would help? This is likely the second most controversial question about Utah Lake! Some people have claimed that because nutrient levels are so high in the lake, even if we reduced human inputs, it wouldn’t make any difference. Like the dust and sediment arguments, this is a reasonable hypothesis, but it isn’t supported by the evidence. A series of nutrient addition and removal experiments just finished last year have definitively shown that nutrients are the factor that limits blooms throughout the year in all portions of the lake. This likely comes back to the total versus reactive nutrient question. While Utah Lake is high in total nutrients (TP and TN), the available fraction of those nutrients is low enough to limit the initiation and spread of blooms for most of the year.
What can we do to reduce the blooms?If nutrients are causing the blooms, what is the best way to reduce nutrient availability in the lake? You can now shout controversy BINGO because this question is just as contested as the last two! If you express nutrient concentration in Utah Lake as a mathematical formula, you’d get something like this:
Even if you don’t love math, you can hopefully see that there are multiple ways of reducing nutrient availability. First, we could continue working with farmers and cities to reduce water use, allowing more natural flow to the lake. Second, we could reduce nutrient inputs by improving wastewater treatment, reducing stormwater inputs, and improving agricultural practices. Third, we could enhance nutrient removal processes by restoring wetlands, protecting the lakebed, and dismissing any proposals that would reduce evaporation such as building islands. Fourth, we could continue researching nutrient cycles in the lake and testing targeted interventions in high-risk bays and marinas, such as localized dredging, chemical treatment, and algae harvesting. Fifth, we could do all of the above. Pro-tip from a teacher: pick all of the above.
Dr. Zach Aanderud takes his Environmental Science students on a fieldtrip to Utah Lake.
Looking to the futureWhile nutrients are clearly a big part of the problem, remember that everything is connected in complex ecosystems. Water temperature and lake level are strongly correlated with the severity of blooms on Utah Lake, with worse blooms in warmer years when the water level is low. Two factors likely contribute to these correlations. First, algae and cyanobacteria can replicate faster in warmer water. Second, because wastewater nutrient inputs are constant (in flood and drought, we all use the toilet about the same), the lake experiences higher nutrient concentrations in low water years. These interactions highlight both opportunities and threats. On the threat side, climate change and more demand for agricultural water are making it harder to prevent blooms on Utah Lake. On the opportunity side, we could get more bang for our buck if we both reduce nutrient inputs by upgrading treatment plants and increase natural water flow to the lake by cooperating with farmers and cities.
There is one point about Utah Lake nutrients that I hope is agreed upon: divisions and finger pointing are not helpful. Though wastewater plants are often viewed as villains, we are all part of the problem (everyone I have ever met poops). We need to view the wastewater plants as indispensable allies, not enemies. They have already implemented many measures to reduce nutrient pollution, including tertiary treatment in some plants. We should thank them for their progress and provide the resources to further reduce nutrients. We also need to look upstream (figuratively) of the treatment plants. To get where we want to go, we need integrated approaches that manage nutrient sources at the watershed level, not only at the end of the line. This is a challenge but also a huge opportunity based on experience from other areas affected by blooms. Implementing nutrient reduction and recapture strategies could create local business opportunities, increase our water and nutrient security, reduce our water and fertilizer expenses, and result in a cleaner and healthier environment.
Cooperation on nutrient and water management will only become more important in the future. The population of the Utah Lake watershed is expected to double by 2050. We are not going to make progress unless we exercise great foresight and investment now.
Toggle ItemIf we live in a desert, why do we have such a huge lake?
First off, Utah Valley isn’t technically a desert. With just over 17” of precipitation annually, central Utah is solidly in the semiarid zone 😊 (deserts have less than 10”). But the question of why Utah Lake exists is still a great one. In the huge expanse of the dry Great Basin, Utah Lake is a rare gem of freshwater and vegetation. Like most things about it, the hydrology of Utah Lake is complicated and fascinating.
Because this area is relatively dry, one of the distinguishing characteristics of Utah Lake is its enormous watershed (area of land that contributes runoff and groundwater to the lake). Nearly 3,000 square miles of mountains and valleys are needed to provide enough water flow to keep Utah Lake wet. Compare that to Lake Tahoe, which has about the same area as Utah Lake but only a 500 square-mile watershed! Because it drains such a huge area, Utah Lake is very sensitive to changes in land use, water diversions, and climate.
There are three basic ways that water gets to Utah Lake: 1. Rivers and streams flow into the lake (45% of inflow), 2. Groundwater seeps into the lake through springs and sediments (41%), and 3. Rain and snow fall directly into the lake (14%). Now that we know how water gets into the lake, where does it go from there? Just like the inflows, there are three major options: 1. Lake water flows through the Jordan River toward the Great Salt Lake (46% of outflow), 2. Lake water evaporates back to atmosphere (38%), and 3. Lake water seeps back into the ground, mostly toward the north (16%). Though these inflows and outflows seem straightforward, they are very difficult to measure, and we are still learning a lot about the lake’s hydrology. In fact, a study came out last year that more than tripled estimates of groundwater flow to Utah Lake!
Diagram of the global water cycle, showing the importance of upwind evaporation for endorheic or terminal basins like Utah Lake and the Great Salt Lake. Units are in thousands of cubic kilometers of water per year (Utah Lake contains approximately 1 cubic kilometer of water).
Some people wrongly assume that Utah Lake evaporation and river flow to the Great Salt Lake should be reduced. When you understand the hydrology of the lake, you see that these water flows are crucial to maintaining a thriving and healthy local environment. First, water that evaporates from Utah Lake provides an important source of downwind rainfall and snow. In fact, landlocked areas like ours receive more than two thirds of their precipitation from upwind evaporation and transpiration from land and lakes. In the water cycle, nothing is wasted! Second, this evaporation increases local humidity and decreases temperature (like a giant evaporative cooler). In a single year, evaporation from the lake sucks about a trillion megajoules of energy from the atmosphere—that’s enough energy to power all of Utah’s electricity for 6.5 years! Third, the water flowing through the Jordan River valley is the lifeblood of the Great Salt Lake. Like Utah Lake, the Great Salt Lake provides invaluable habitat and serves as a cornerstone of Utah’s identity and economy.
Maps of the Great Salt Lake watershed showing the size of the lake at different elevations. The level of the Great Salt Lake reached 4,190’ in July of 2021. Credit: Wayne Wurtsbaugh and team at USU.
While terminal lakes are drying up around the world, mainly because of excessive diversions, we need to protect the Utah Lake and Great Salt Lake to avoid air pollution, loss of habitat, loss of tourism, and local quality of life. Climate change has already made our droughts more intense and precipitation less reliable. Looking to the future, we will need to reduce water use and eliminate greenhouse gas emissions to preserve our beautiful and unique environment. Utahns currently use more water per capita than almost any state in the U.S., leaving us lots of room for improvement in agricultural, urban, and domestic water use.
Toggle ItemIs Utah Lake getting better or worse?
This is one of the most important and complex management questions. Unsurprisingly, the answer is it depends on what you are talking about.
Let’s start with the harmful algal blooms (see the section on blooms for more detail). You may have recently heard about the blooms that affect parts of Utah Lake most years. Increased public awareness of blooms is a good thing, but it’s important to remember that this does not mean blooms are a new or worsening problem. Over the past 35 years, the overall amount and duration of blooms have decreased, likely due to improved wastewater treatment and restoration of water flow to the lake. However, blooms in Provo Bay and on the east shore are persistent hot spots with blooms occurring in 30 of the last 34 years. Because the trails and marinas along the east shore are where most people interact with the lake, there is a widespread belief that things are getting worse. This is reinforced by the fact that when a bloom appears, it gets a lot of media attention, but when a bloom disappears (usually just a week or two later), most people never hear about it. Continued reduction in wastewater, urban, and agricultural nutrient sources combined with increased water flow will very likely result in decreased blooms.
While we cannot bring the many extinct Utah Lake species back from the dead, we can establish more natural water quantity and quality to restore some of the extirpated (locally eliminated) species and work to manage the invasive species such as carp and phragmites. The invasive species removal programs have made real progress—removing millions of tons of fish and cutting down hundreds of acres of phragmites. However, invasive removal is an uphill battle. There are virtually no examples of the complete elimination of invasive species from an area as large as the Utah Lake watershed. We can reduce numbers, but it is likely impossible to completely remove the carp and phragmites that now inhabit our lake. This is not completely a bad thing, because both of these species provide ecosystem services, including collecting and removing nutrients and other pollutants, and serving as habitat and food for other species.
Talking about habitat and wildlife, the story is more straightforward. The restoration efforts surrounding the June Sucker and other species have been extremely successful. Minimum fish flows have been established for Provo River and Hobble Creek, creating access to habitat even during the worst drought years. Likewise, large areas of wetland and delta habitat have been created or protected, and this is only increasing with current conservation projects. Fish, birds, and the people who love them are very happy with the notable improvements in the Utah Lake system over the past few decades.
There is another dimension of Utah Lake that is perhaps as or more important than the ecology and hydrology: our community’s relationship with the lake. Thirty years ago, it was very common to spend time on and around Utah Lake. Many of us grew up swimming, fishing, waterskiing, and camping around Utah Lake. Even though the ecological status of the lake is arguably better today than it was then, many people have negative attitudes towards the lake and visitation has dropped substantially. This has led to calls to dredge the entire lake, make radical changes to governance, or even cover it with artificial islands. These extreme proposals are a symptom of our loss of connection and understanding with this beautiful waterbody.
Toggle ItemWhat are the biggest threats to Utah Lake?
Though many aspects of the Utah Lake system are improving, there are real threats ahead. The most immediate are proposals to create artificial islands and to form a Utah Lake Authority patterned after the Inland Port Authority.
The proposal to create giant islands across a third of the lake surface claims to be an all-in-one solution for all of Utah Lake’s problems. The developers claim they would remove all invasive species, create a deep and clear lake, and increase available water for the valley. In reality, this proposal would change the nature of Utah Lake so drastically our ancestors wouldn’t even recognize it. The problems with this project have been enumerated in detail elsewhere, but briefly, it depends on a false pretense that the lake is dying, it ignores virtually everything we know about the lake’s ecology, and it would blast a cultural crater so deep in the heart of our community that our ancestors and children would never let us rest. Ecologically, this proposal would remove all three of the natural protections that make Utah Lake resilient to nutrient loading (cloudy water, evaporative precipitation of nutrients, and a shallow and wide bathymetry—see the algal blooms FAQ).
More generally, these kinds of “moonshot” projects with outside investors have been proposed before. Right here in Utah Valley, we flirted with the idea of a ski resort behind Y Mountain for more than 30 years. The investors never showed up and the proposal ended in bankruptcy and a heap of wasted taxpayer dollars. These large miracle solutions are always just what they seem: too good to be true. True ecological restoration takes scientific evidence, community engagement, and persistent collaboration.
The Utah Lake Authority proposal is more complex. The stated goals of increasing resources available for restoration are justified. However, the draft legislation which failed this year did not involve local cities and water users in its design and approach. With revision, there could be improvements to the governance of Utah Lake. However, if the proposal is just a smokescreen for the islands project, it is no better than the islands project.
Maps by Envision Utah showing the difference between unplanned sprawl (left) and strategic growth (right). Both scenarios account for the same increases in valley population.
There are other threats to Utah Lake beyond islands and legislation. Population growth and development around the lake could threaten habitat and increase nutrient loading. Unless development is done wisely and strategically, things could get worse for Utah Lake in a big way. Protecting the lake from major modifications such as causeways and islands is the most conservative and safe pathway forward. For example, the causeways built across the Great Salt Lake triggered unexpected changes in the lake’s hydrology and biogeochemistry, leading to economic damages and the most toxic concentrations of methylmercury ever observed. On the other hand, smart development coupled with conservation of sensitive areas could be a boon for the lake. If water is returned to the lake’s tributaries and nutrients are removed from wastewater via enhanced treatment, growth is not incompatible with a vibrant and recovering Utah Lake.
Another serious threat for Utah Lake is climate change. We are currently in the most extreme megadrought (>10-year dry period) in the last 400 years and likely in the past 2,000 years. This megadrought is attributable to human disruption of the climate. Looking into the future, climate models project that the Utah Lake watershed will continue to receive approximately the same amount of precipitation as in the past. However, this precipitation will be less consistent, and there will be a shift from snow to rain. At the same time, increased evaporation and demand for irrigation water in the warmer temperatures will result in less water available to sustain Utah Lake and the downstream Great Salt Lake. We need to be looking ahead and working on climate solutions now to ensure that our lake can continue to thrive in the future.
Direct measurements of snowpack in Utah’s mountains have shown an average decline of 20% since the 1950s, with 92% of all sites experiencing a decrease.
The final threat to the lake is societal apathy and disconnection. There are rampant misconceptions about Utah Lake, including beliefs that the lake is toxic, poisoned, or drying out. These beliefs have stopped many in Utah Valley from visiting and caring about Utah Lake. We can each do our part by visiting the lake and sharing our love of it with our neighbors and leaders.
Toggle ItemWhat could be done to improve and protect Utah Lake?
Around and within Utah Lake, dozens of restoration projects are ongoing. These diverse projects are being led by individual citizens, cities, the county, the state, and the federal government. The Utah Lake Commission has a list of many such projects here. Even more conservation and restoration projects are on the horizon, ranging from expansion of trails and access points to the creation of new water laws that favor conservation.
Continuing and expanding existing conservation efforts could have large payoffs for the status and future of Utah Lake. Here are seven prioritized recommendations for future work:
- Rehabilitate our cultural connection with the lake through outreach and education
- Reduce nutrients from wastewater plants and other sources by upgrading facilities and improving urban and agricultural practices
- Increase river flow to the lake through cooperative agreements with farmers and cities
- Continue habitat restoration efforts around the lake and its tributaries
- Support research on the lake’s ecology and sustainable practices for its watershed
- Continue removing invasive species such as carp and phragmites in ecologically sensitive and sound ways
- Integrate the health and conservation of Utah Lake into strategic planning of future development in the valley
Toggle ItemHow can I learn more?
- The Utah Lake Commission maintains the official website for Utah Lake, which has great photos, blog posts, and even a podcast on science, restoration, and recreation: utahlake.org
- The June Sucker Recovery Implementation Program has great articles, photos, and activities: June Sucker Recovery
- The Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission has excellent information on Utah Lake and its connected rivers and wetlands: URMCC
- The Wikipedia page on Utah Lake has some good basic information and links to other resources: Utah Lake Wikipedia
- The Central Utah Water Conservancy District has some great card games and activities that can help you learn about and protect Utah Lake and its watershed: CUWCD
- The Provo River Delta project is seeking to restore habitat for the June Sucker and other species: Provo River Delta
- The Valley Visioning project commissioned by the Utah County Council of Governments provides excellent resources on possible futures for Utah Valley, including development around Utah Lake: Envision Utah
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