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(Franciso Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Farmer Moreno Robins, 82, who has owned property where the Provo River meets Utah Lake for over 40 years, points out the boundary line of his 37 acres. The U.S. Interior Department proposes restoring the Provo River delta by acquiring 310 acres of marsh and agricultural lands and diverting the Provo over it. This would recreate a lost wetland ecosystem, provide habitat crucial to the recovery of endangered June sucker.
Deal struck to restore Provo River delta
Utah Lake » Feds scale back plan to re-create delta needed to ensure survival of June suckers.
First Published Mar 24 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Mar 24 2014 05:37 pm

Provo » Moreno Robins arrived at his 37-acre farm Tuesday morning and discovered one of his 20 cows had just dropped a newborn calf, which was still dripping with amniotic fluid and looking for its mother’s teat.

Without that nourishment, the young animal would not survive long.

Provo River meets Utah Lake

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At a glance

Provo River Delta Restoration

Agencies plan to acquire 310 acres where the Provo River meets Utah Lake and restore braided river channels in hopes of saving the endangered June sucker, a native fish that lives in Utah Lake and its tributaries.

An open house will be held on the project April 2 at the Provo City Recreation Center, 320 W. 500 North in Provo 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. The public has until May 7 to submit comments on the draft Environmental Impact Statement by email to rmingo@usbr.gov.

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The scene reminded the retired pediatrician of what the Robins family stood to lose under one option for an ambitious federal plan to restore a slice of nature where the Provo River and Utah Lake meet. He has spent the last couple of years wondering whether his property near the lake’s east shore would be taken to create a river delta that would serve as crucial rearing grounds for the endangered June sucker.

But under a compromise local landowners reached with the U.S. Department of the Interior, the preferred plan now targets a smaller tract of pasture to the north of the Robins property.

"It’s not a big farm, but it’s paradise," Robins said, admiring the views of the snow-covered Wasatch Mountains disappearing into a ceiling of cloud cover.

The federal Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission last month rolled out a new version of the Provo River Delta Restoration Project, which went back to the drawing board two years ago when critics blasted it as an attack on agriculture and outdoor recreation.

The earlier version would have diverted the Provo from its diked channel a mile and a half above Utah Lake State Park and turned the water onto several hundred acres of agricultural land sandwiched between a subdivision and the lake.

The new plan halves the pasture that will revert to marshlands to 310 acres and guarantees minimum flows in the lower Provo, which has become a popular green belt used by joggers, anglers and boaters.

"That’s advantageous to everybody," Robins says. "That’s a win-win proposition. We keep some nice land. We keep some country in Provo still."

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The decline of June sucker » For proponents of the project, the accord shows that agriculture and endangered species conservation can co-exist.

June sucker once swarmed by the millions in Utah Lake. But the introduction of carp and other non-native fish, along with habitat degradation, much of it done to benefit agriculture, have made the lake an inhospitable place for the species.

The project’s goal is to undo some of the damage done by upstream dams and downstream dikes that keep floodwaters off land now used to raise livestock. The mitigation commission intends to push the river out of the channel to form a delta — a fan-shaped marsh at a river’s mouth where the flow slows, spreads into multiple channels and drops its sediments.

The lake’s young suckers need such an environment for safe harbor.

"June sucker are an important indicator species. Anything we can do for June sucker makes things better for Utah Lake," says Mike Mills, who coordinates sucker recovery programs for the Central Utah Water Conservancy District.

Saving this species, which live naturally only in Utah Lake, requires fixing what biologists call a "recruitment bottleneck," the failure of naturally spawned fish to reach reproductive age.

This means ensuring young fish achieve a length of eight inches. That’s far short of the two feet adults can reach, but the lake’s non-native predators can’t readily get their jaws around an eight-incher, Mills says.

In the mid-1990s, the June sucker population fell to less than 400, triggering two important conservation measures — mandatory water releases of 13,000 acre-feet a year from Deer Creek reservoir and captive breeding.

Artificially raised suckers in Red Butte Reservoir near the University of Utah have been used to stock Utah Lake with 400,000 adults, according to Mills.

Room to grow » With water in the lower Provo and thousands of adult suckers, there has been plenty of spawning. But it has accomplished little for the imperiled fish.

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