SPANISH FORK — Toxic algal blooms have hampered Utah Lake recreation the past few summers.
In September 2019, the rise of blue-green algae led to warnings advising people not to swim or water ski anywhere in the lake, which wasn't even the first time that happened.
That’s why officials have launched a pair of pilot studies to see if there’s a way to get ahead of the problem and stop the toxins from shutting down portions of the lake. It’s a potential short-term water quality fix while work continues to find long-term solutions to the problem, Utah Lake Commission executive director Eric Ellis said Monday.
Treatments began at Lincoln Beach in the southeastern portion of the lake Thursday and will begin at Lindon Marina in the northeastern part of the lake in the very near future. The treatments will last through the end of the summer. The tests aren’t looking to eradicate algae, since it’s something that’s needed for the lake ecosystem; rather, experts are trying to find a way to lessen algal blooms.
Algal blooms carry a toxin called cyanobacteria, which can lead to illness in humans and can kill animals. If state environmental experts find that bacteria levels have reached a certain threshold, they issue warnings or closures for certain areas, or the whole lake during the worst blooms.
On Thursday, officials launched an airboat that started distributing a cyanobacteria treatment called Earthtec combined with "a copper-type treatment" evenly across the marina surface. The other test will combine a copper treatment with a clay-like substance to absorb phosphorus from the water to reduce the algae’s food availability, Ellis explained. Officials say it shouldn't impact the recreational use of the marinas.
Boating access remains open at Lincoln Beach even though a safety barrier has been temporarily added to the mouth of the marina to help minimize the exchange of marina water with the rest of the lake.
"Anytime the wind blows, you’ve got a lot of wave action pushing lake water directly into that channel that is the (Lincoln Beach) marina," Ellis said. "It’s just angling the opening to that marina just a little bit differently so it doesn’t have much mixing with the regular lake water."
That barrier wasn’t needed for Lindon Marina.
In a statement, Lindon Marina operator Ron Madson said he welcomes the new study. "Algae has really hurt visitation in the past and we look forward to an algae-free summer," he said.
The pilot program was funded from money secured during last year’s legislative session, along with funds matched from outside the state. In all, $500,000 was allotted in the Fiscal Year 2020 budget for tests such as the one that began Thursday and a long-term environment study.
Ellis explained that officials decided to hold off starting the pilot project until they reached the beginning of the typical recreation season. The long-term Utah Lake Water Quality Study is focused on trying to find a nutrient level needed while taking into account recreational uses of the lake.
"In order to keep the lake stable in future years, we’re conducting this 3- to 5-year study to make those criteria set," he said.
Meanwhile, state budget concerns created by the COVID-19 pandemic have altered some aspects of monitoring Utah Lake algal blooms. Utah Division of Water Quality officials normally conduct lake monitoring and sampling to ensure there isn’t a harmful amount of cyanobacteria in the lake. Agency officials stated on the division's website that "budget uncertainty" forced it to stop monitoring the lake for potential algal blooms until at least July 1, which is when the state’s FY2021 budget begins.
Ellis said officials still have access to satellite imagery, which can help pinpoint where harmful algal blooms are growing. There are also educational signs posted at all public and private marinas that show visitors algae patches they should avoid if they come across one.
Ellis added that most of the lake's marinas have experienced record-level attendance so far this year and that the lake is currently free of toxic algal blooms.