Shortly after boarding a flotilla of tour boats at the Lindon Marina on Utah Lake, state Rep. Mike Noel wasted no time in getting right to the point.
“What’s the main purpose of wanting to rehabilitate this lake?” Noel, R-Kanab, asked the scientists and advocates accompanying him on the tour. “Why should we spend money on your lake?”
Utah Lake, with its penchant for losing more than half the water it contains to evaporation each summer and keen talent for growing potentially toxic algae, seemed like a “huge waste of water,” Noel went on to say.
Those who would like to see a science-backed solution for the water quality woes at Utah Lake have long faced one particularly difficult barrier. As people who believe Utah Lake has something valuable to offer surrounding communities, they are more often than not in the minority.
So a broad range of researchers with interest in the lake hosted an all-day field trip for state lawmakers on Wednesday, hoping to fill them in on ongoing research — and funding needs — at Utah Lake.
The lake remains under an advisory that warns against swimming or coming into contact with the lake’s waters, which have suffered from a season-long algal bloom first detected in late June. But concentrations of toxin-producing algae remain low enough that boating on the lake is considered safe, so after a brief delay for inclement weather, the tour proceeded.
Two legislative committees attended the outing — the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee, and the Legislative Water Development Commission. Two other lawmakers not assigned to either committee also chose to attend the event.
Sen. Margaret Dayton, the Orem Republican who leads both committees, counted Wednesday’s large attendance as a success.
“I’m particularly pleased that we have more and more legislators that are interested in understanding water issues,” Dayton said. “I would hope that everybody learned … that we have two big concerns with our water — our water quantity and our water quality.”
A lot of research needs to be done on Utah Lake, Dayton said, and it’s important for lawmakers to understand the science when they weigh the various funding requests that come before them.
Much of the water-related funding in the state goes to resolve water-supply issues, Tom Holstrom, general manager of the Central Valley Water Reclamation Facility, told lawmakers on Wednesday. And while some funding is available for water quality research on Utah Lake — most of it from private or federal sources — they said that money won’t be enough to understand what’s driving the lake’s increasingly high-profile algal blooms.
Researchers on the field trip spoke of the need to step back and take a holistic view of the lake’s water quality.
Generally speaking, algal blooms can develop only under specific conditions, said Theron Miller, research director for the Wasatch Front Water Quality Council, a coalition of publicly owned water treatment plants pushing for science-based solutions to water quality on the Wasatch Front. The algae need something to eat —generally nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen. And they need a place to live where the water is warm and stagnant, allowing them to grow and multiply.
On Utah Lake, Miller said, algae typically needs three days to four days of warm, sunny weather to jump-start the rapid microbial growth that leads to toxic algal blooms. It’s entirely possible, he said, that Utah Lake has grown more severe algal blooms in the past three to four years because global climate change has made Utah’s summers hotter and warmer.
But the general consensus among state regulators is that it’s difficult to control the weather and easier to control the input of nutrients into the lake. So most of the proposals for addressing Utah Lake’s algae problem involve reducing the number of nutrients sewage treatment plants are allowed to discharge into the lake.
“We can’t control climate change, we can’t control the wind, we might be able to control nutrients — that’s the paradigm,” Miller said. “The question is, can we get them to a low enough level?”
Some research suggests that even removing all the nutrients that come to the lake from large water treatment plants would have little effect on the situation.
This is the theory Miller wants to test. He wants to make a complete inventory of all the nutrients in the lake, to determine whether the proposed method of algae control is realistic in this context.
He doesn’t mean to block state regulator’s efforts, Miller said. His true aim, he said, is to help improve the lake.
“We’re not obstructionists,” he said. “We are full-on active leaders trying to find out what is right for Utah Lake.”
After hearing stories of the half-million boaters who used to visit Utah Lake, of the businesses that have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past summer and of the thousands of birds that come to feed at the lake each summer, Noel’s opinion seemed to soften a bit — maybe.
“I like it,” he said. “But it’s pretty hard to beat Lake Powell.”