Utah Lake, part 5: The lake’s future


Utah Lake near Saratoga Springs. (Jim Mullhaupt/Flickr)

Utah Lake near Saratoga Springs. (Jim Mullhaupt/Flickr)

Part 5 of a series on Utah LakeThe following observations and insights concerning Utah Lake have been developed during my nearly 50 years in Utah Valley as a professor, researcher, environmental engineer, consultant, and local citizen.

Boat Launch and Recreation Areas

Over the years, lake levels are unpredictable and regularly vary 4–6 feet through a year, and as much as a 15 feet depth difference from wet-period peak to dry-period low. The main lake provides only about 10 feet of reliable depth when the lake is “full,” but it is often much shallower. Over the last 50 years about 20 summers experienced depths less than 8 feet in the middle of the lake, and for 10 summers depths were less than 6 feet.

During droughts, severe access problems occur since lakebed slopes are quite flat for much of the lake, particularly along north, east, and south shorelines—only some 1–2 feet per 1,000 feet. Consequently, boat access to open water is a major problem without dredged harbors and access channels. The only two currently available with sizable capacity and easy access are the Utah Lake State Park at the mouth of the Provo River and Lindon Marina, just north of the old Geneva Steel site. (View a map of lake access points here.)

Shoreline recreation areas are always facing the threat of being flooded by, or else distant from, the natural water shoreline. Facilities located at normal high-water, lake-edge locations must dredge channels some 15 feet deep to ensure boat access during dry years. Conversely, during wet years, they are confronted with floodwater several feet higher than normal full depth. These depth fluctuations are a major obstacle to permanent facilities and long-term boat use on the lake, particularly for larger motorboats and sailboats. Some areas exist at Lincoln Point, the east side of Goshen Bay, and the west side of the lake where the shoreline slopes are much steeper. But these areas are relatively isolated to most users, with travel time and cost being serious obstacles to significant lake-use developments.

In the future, environmental and ecological needs, water storage rights, and ongoing wet and dry meteorological cycles will likely result in depth fluctuations about the same as in the historic past. These fluctuations will continue to pose serious lake access and flooding challenges to most shoreline facilities. If the lake is to be a reliable shoreline recreation and boat recreation destination, large investments in facility developments will be needed. Developments will find themselves in serious trouble if they do not adequately incorporate the large depth fluctuations into their planning, designs, and construction.

Major Ecosystem Improvements

In an ecosystem as complex as Utah Lake, there are likely to be significant unintended consequences whenever substantial ecosystem modification efforts are undertaken. Successful major ecosystem restorations and significant improvements are difficult to formulate, rare, and expensive—both in direct project costs and lost opportunity costs for competing uses. Although the uninformed may feel that most of the lake’s ecosystem problems are related to water quality, in fact, most of pressures on disrupted fish, bird and animal populations come from factors other than the lake’s water quality and in-lake habitat. For example, restoration of the endangered June Sucker depends largely on additional favorable spawning and brood areas in tributary streams and rivers, and on reduced competition from other fish, and not on better water quality.

Shoreline vegetation and habitat should benefit from the Central Utah Project. One of its goals is reducing the frequency and magnitude extreme lake levels. The frequency and magnitude of extremes in lake level fluctuations are important in re-establishing shallow water vegetation, such as cattails and bull-rushes; hopefully future scientific studies will help clarify this important aspect of habitat improvement. Control of the “pest plant” Phragmites is also a crucial issue in this recovery.

With reasonable attention to ecosystem preservation and enhancement, Utah Lake will continue to support abundant and diverse plant and animal communities. But let’s not make the mistake of thinking that our work isn’t done until we change it into a “clear” lake—it’s simply not possible. Appropriate emphasis on preserving and enhancing the lake’s ecology does not preclude additional development. True environmental sensitivity, not just popular, politically correct actions of the day, is important in any lake-centered development projects

Future Water Quality

Utah Lake water quality is not likely to change significantly as long as wastewater treatment, agricultural pollution control, and other pollution control efforts are continued near current levels.

A Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) water quality study, begun by the State of Utah in 2005, is still open. This study’s purpose is to determine whether additional pollution control is needed to protect the lake’s beneficial uses, including recreation and wildlife. The TMDL study was initiated because of occasional violations of phosphorus and total dissolved solids (TDS) guidelines, given in the lake’s beneficial use classification. The first phase of the study did not identify any significant problems associated with the occasional exceedances of TDS and phosphorus “limits.”

In overview, Utah Lake will not be clear, nor deep, nor bordered by expansive clean, sandy beaches, although some sandy beaches exist and might be expanded. It will continue to be a shallow, eutrophic, turbid, slightly-saline lake that is largely bordered by marshy, and muddy, wetland areas.

Hopefully all will recognize, that in addition to economic uses, it is an extremely valuable ecological and recreational resource. Lake level fluctuations, wetland protection laws, threatened native species, and possible adverse environmental impacts will combine to limit shoreline developments. Causeways, bridges, and additional dikes will likely be built sometime; perhaps even some islands will be constructed. Near-shore development conditions are less restrictive on the west side than on the east side, since on the west side the shoreline is steeper and more stable and fewer wetlands exist there. Some east-side zones also exist where development conditions are somewhat favorable, including fewer wetland issues.

Lake Research

Good historical data and information, along with sound engineering and scientific knowledge, are a necessary foundation for wise use, and protection, of the lake. We would benefit tremendously from a much better understanding of the lake’s natural systems. However, good, productive research is an ongoing process; hopefully without repeated major starts and stops, and especially devoid of scattered short-term efforts with long inactive periods in between. It requires extended and dedicated effort to become knowledgeable on Utah Lake’s unique nature and characteristics. Realistically, resources are simply not available to fund ongoing, long-term, intensive research activities on large numbers of lakes and rivers. But Utah Lake is indeed a special case, where developments, projects, and decisions will involve hundreds of millions, or even billions, of dollars in coming decades as population growth continues in Utah Valley.

I passionately believe that information and knowledge gained from a significant, ongoing Utah Lake research program would result in savings far in excess of costs. Establishment of a permanent lake research station is a much-needed, wise, course of action.

Lake Planning and Management

The Utah Lake Commission, established in 2007, is the recognized, authorized, representative body that was organized to give long-term uniformity and continuity in addressing lake planning and use issues. The Commission is pivotal in generating wise consensus on lake use and management issues and in seeking funds for important studies. The Commission’s initial lake master plan was formally signed on June 26, 2009. This plan, hopefully with periodic updates, is extremely valuable in setting priorities and giving direction on lake issues. Although the Commission is only a coordinating body, it has broad support and representation from most cities and agencies in the area, including local, county, state and federal management and regulatory entities.

Perspectives on Water Quality

Various perspectives exist as to the meaning of “water quality.” Briefly, water quality and pollution, as used in government programs, relate to the designated beneficial uses of a body of water or water source. Water quality issues are related to parameters used to measure quality acceptability for designated uses are being violated, and if so, how often, how persistent, etc.

This approach means that water quality it not compared to an absolute reference level but rather is measured relative to designated uses. For example, suppose a water is designated as drinking water, but pollution-indicator bacteria persistently show up in samples. The water would then be considered polluted and of poor quality even though it may be of excellent quality for most other beneficial uses. In addition to this beneficial-use orientation in defining water quality, there are also non-degradation clauses in water quality laws. These clauses are aimed at preventing water quality deterioration when the existing quality is better than required by the water’s classification (designated beneficial uses).

Official designated beneficial uses for Utah Lake:

  • 2B—Protected for secondary contact recreation such as boating, wading, or similar uses.
  • 3B—Protected for warm water species of game fish, including the necessary aquatic organisms in their food chain.
  • 3D—Protected for other aquatic wildlife.
  • 4—Protected for agricultural uses including irrigation of crops and stock watering.

See the state code for more details, water classifications, and associated water quality and pollution parameters.

Photo license: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

LaVere B. Merritt

LaVere B. Merritt is a professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering at Brigham Young University. His research and public service have included many multidisciplinary studies on Utah Lake. He served as member and then chair of the Provo Metropolitan Water Board for many years and is a consultant to both public and private entities on Utah Lake matters.

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