Utah Lake Dying?

Utah Lake Dying?

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PROVO, Utah (AP) -- Utah Lake may be dying.

Preliminary monitoring has found salt levels in the lake's water are too high for alfalfa, and phosphorus levels are so high as to be unhealthy for fish, said Theron Miller of the Utah Division of Water Quality.

A final report about the lake's health is expected by 2006, and by then the division expects to have mandatory -- and expensive -- changes to sewers, farms and feedlots to reverse the environmental damage.

It is likely that every sewage facility in the county will be required to upgrade for removal of ammonia and phosphorus, or be fined, said Miller.

"We are going to warn these people," he said. "We do as best we can to work with them -- we are not trying to be the enemy by any means. These are major, major expenditures and it can be hard on people."

Cattlemen and ranchers may be asked to voluntarily limit their phosphorus runoff. If they don't comply, legal action could be taken.

The initial results from last year's monitoring found salt levels have reached a level that impairs the growth of alfalfa.

"It definitely is an impairment to those farmers left in the west part of Utah County and south part of Salt Lake County that still irrigate with it," Miller said.

Nearly 1,000 acres of alfalfa could be affected, mostly in the Lehi area, said Dean Miner of the Utah State University Extension Service.

Orchard owners have had to abandon attempts to use Utah Lake water for irrigation because fruit trees are even more sensitive to salt than alfalfa is, he said.

And phosphorus, if left uncontrolled, could result in a lake with no fish, Miller said.

"Jordan River ... is already listed for low oxygen content because of phosphorus," Miller said. "The fish could be in danger. We are working to keep the lake from that desperate, notorious path."

State and federal law can be used to force the reduction of salt levels in the water, but phosphorus is not regulated unless tests show the health of the lake is in jeopardy -- which is what Miller expects will happen.

Initial tests show the three most significant sources of phosphorus in Utah Lake are municipal sewer treatment plants, agricultural feedlots and fertilizers.

Residents tend to believe the lake has always been the way it is now, but it hasn't, said Robert Carter, who has been commissioned by the Department of Natural Resources to write a book about Utah Lake, to published this spring. "We are trying to see if there is some way to restore at least in part what we had down there at one time. We are hoping with this book to re-establish community pride in Utah Lake."

Only two of seven species of fish native to the lake still can be found there.

One of those, the endangered June sucker, which occurs naturally no where else in the world, is nearly wiped out, said Richard Hepworth, of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. Experts believe only 450 genetically pure June sucker remain and all restocking efforts have failed.

The Utah sucker also is on the verge of extinction in the lake but is not listed as endangered because it occurs naturally in other lakes.

Reed Harris, director of the June sucker recovery program, would like to see a return to the time when 30-pound trout and sucker were abundant, tourists flocked to scenic resorts for dinner cruises, and the lake was clearer, four times less salty and colder, with little-to-no algae and surrounded by beneficial reeds.

Tourists and leisure seekers stopped coming and lakeside resorts -- more than a dozen in the lake's history, some of which were in operation for more than 100 years -- closed down.

While residents still boat and fish in the lake, the number of residents who treat the lake as a resort destination for swimming and other activities has decreased sharply since sewage began being dumped into the lake, said Carter.

"The June sucker to us is kind of a bellwether, an indicator of what has happened over the last century and a half," Harris said. "The important part is what are we going to do about it?"

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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