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PROVO — Researchers are trying to understand how ash from last summer’s Pole Creek, Bald Mountain and Coal Hollow fires are affecting Utah County's watersheds.
Ben Abbott, an assistant professor from Brigham Young University’s Department of Plant and Wildlife Sciences, and a group of student researchers are taking water samples and measuring how the fires have affected the bodies of water in Utah County, particularly Utah Lake, which is already experiencing harmful algal blooms.
"Algal blooms now are all over the world, and there is an increasing number of fires," he said. "It's still scientifically an open question. We don't know how those two phenomena interact."
Though separate, their research is in concurrence with Utah Valley University's proposal to the Utah Lake Commission to build an algae-harvesting boat to deploy in Utah Lake this summer.
Abbott and his researchers want to understand how much sediment was transported from the fires, how the water chemistry has changed, and the impacts it might have on the lake's ecosystem.
Spanish Fork River, where the majority of the ash is flowing from, Provo River and American Fork River were also affected by the fires.
Abbott called last year’s fires, which burned approximately 300 square miles of forest, “megafires.” But not all wildfires are bad for the environment, he said, as they can lead to diverse habitat in the landscape.
"That wildfire, sure, it does kill the plants in that one patch, but then it lets other organisms and species and other kinds of ecosystems develop in that place," he said.
Without wildfires, certain species wouldn’t exist as they could be taken over by another species, according to Abbott.
Abbott said smaller fires, which have been historically part of the local ecosystem, are critical for the forest and for the river to renew itself, as well as several species that are adapted for those natural disturbances. But megafires are different and affect a much larger area.
"You can imagine with a megafire it’s wiping out a whole mountain all out once," he said. "The trees recover more slowly, it’s harder for animals, especially small things like fish, invertebrates, insects and crustaceans moving through the river system."
Abbott said the wildfires killed off a large portion of fish in the Spanish Fork River system.
"It killed the invasive species that were there, so maybe this will be an opportunity for native fish to recolonize those rivers and streams," he said.
Doctoral student Erin Jones, the lead researcher of the group, said there hasn't been much scientific study conducted on how wildfires affect lakes with algal blooms.
The study was first sparked by Jones, who had already been collecting water samples before the fires, when she looked at the weather forecast and learned that remnants from Hurricane Rosa were going to bring rainfall.
“We had been measuring the water quality in some of these streams for about a year and a half,” she said. “It’s not very often that you have a dataset before the natural disaster happens.”
She said the fires, combined with rain from Hurricane Rosa, caused a lot of erosion to travel from rivers and streams and into Utah Lake.
She said the day the storm was expected to hit, her team installed robots to collect samples each hour throughout the rainstorm to see all the sediment, nutrients and different kinds of pollution that were coming off the landscape.
“Because this wildfire and the water chemistry are such a unique phenomenon … it’s really hard to say what is going to happen and what the water quality impacts will be from larger fires and more spiky precipitation events,” she said.
She predicts that the ash could potentially decrease the algal growth, especially at the mouth of the rivers that flow into Utah Lake, but algae might increase in the long term.
“We might see fewer (algae) this year. But then next year it will be even worse,” she said.
Abbott noted that while the Spanish Fork River "looks like chocolate milk" due to the ash, the Provo River is running clear.
While standing at the edge of Provo River, Abbott pointed out that the water there shouldn’t run so clear this time of year. The reason it does is because Deer Creek and Jordanelle dams have trapped the sediment.
“Sometimes we’re tempted to think if the river is muddy, it’s unhealthy. And that simply isn’t the case," he said. "That’s part of the natural disturbance cycle of the river, and there are lots of organisms in the river that depend on that material. So when you put a dam that makes the water clear and takes out all of that sediment, that can have a negative effect on the river.”
Abbott said the state of Utah Lake’s water is important because when its water evaporates it feeds the snowpack in the winter that fuels the ski industry.
“One of the ecological laws is that everything is connected,” Abbott said. “Whenever we are degrading the soil, air or water it has a direct impact on society."
To prevent or mitigate harmful algal blooms in Utah Lake, UVU chemistry professor Kevin Shurtleff and his team of undergraduate researchers began developing the pilot project for the algae-harvesting boat in 2016.
"A lot of other researchers have been trying to understand what's causing the algal blooms. I kind of skirted that and I want to find a solution to prevent them or end them," he said.
The algae-harvesting boat is expected to be 21 feet long and 8 ½ feet wide and would be able to filter 600 gallons of lake water per minute. The cost of the boat is $75,000, and larger boats can cost upward of $200,000. Currently, UVU is in the process of patenting the boat.
Prior to their final design, researchers tested seven different methods for removing algae from water. Of those seven, a technique called a "plate and frame filter press" worked the best and has been used for other purposes like removing yeast from beer or cleaning fracking water.
Shurtleff found success when he added cellulose, a crushed natural wood fiber, to the process to allow for the algae to be caught while preventing the algae from clogging the filters.
He said the reason why it's challenging to filter algae, or cyanobacteria, out of the lake, is because it measures 3 to 6 micrometers in diameter, compared to human hair, which is 100 micrometers in diameter.
Shurtleff and his students conduct harvesting tests in a 40-gallon algae tank inside UVU's greenhouse facility. After filtering out the algae, what he calls "filter cakes" are created, which he hopes to turn into fuel.
"That's the advantage of having a mobile system is that we can drive the boat to the (affected) areas," he said.
Shurtleff said his method is environmentally friendly and won't cause harm to June suckers, an endangered species of fish native to Utah Lake.
If Shurtleff's proposal is approved this month, his team could begin assembling the boat and have it operating in Utah Lake by mid-July when algal blooms are expected to hit their peak.
"Ultimately, what we'd like to see is a fleet of these algae-harvesting boats," he said.
His team hopes to target areas that have toxic levels of algae like Sandy Beach, Lincoln Beach, Provo Bay and the marinas where people station their boats.
Shurtleff said groups from Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, where their own algal bloom affects the local shellfish industry, and Upper Klamath Lake in California have come to him for advice.
"I really hope we get funded here. … It will show that the technology really does work," he said.
If his method is a success, Shurtleff said it's possible that he could use the technology in other watersheds across the country that are experiencing harmful algal blooms.