This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
Summer is green lawns and days on the lake in the minds of many Utahns. Days at the lake are less enjoyable, though, with goopy, toxic algae floating on the surface.
Ironically, those green lawns are partly responsible.
Utah officials managing water quality are looking for ways to reduce and remove algal blooms from bodies of water — such as Utah Lake — to help keep people and animals healthy and to help Utahns get back to enjoying the water.
Since July 16, the Utah County Health Department has warned against spending time on the entirety of Utah Lake because the toxins released from blue-green algae on the lake reached dangerously high levels.
“In a year like this year where we have droughts,” Utah Division of Water Quality Director Erica Gaddis said, “we’re finding that the blooms are showing up earlier, and they are more severe than they have been in past years.”
Scientifically known as cyanobacteria, the organisms are found all over the world. They thrive in warm, still waters, such as lakes and ponds. Climate change and an excess of nutrients running into waterways are providing the ideal environment for their growth.
The Division of Water Quality is focusing on preventing algal blooms, educating the public about the hazards of cyanobacteria and treating or removing algae in all of Utah’s waterways.
“Algae blooms are a response to over-fertilizing a lake,” Gaddis said. “At the Division of Water Quality, one of our primary mandates and missions is to reduce nutrient pollution to the waters of the state.”
Phosphorus and nitrogen are the top nutrients aiding the harmful algae. Those nutrients can come from farmland, wastewater treatment plants and even residential lawns, Gaddis said.
Managing current algal blooms
The Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, which manages the contracts to mitigate algal blooms in the state’s public lands, primarily uses copper sulfate as an algaecide, the division’s interim director, Jamie Barnes, said.
“It’s safe for the lake,” Barnes said, “but it’s a treatment we have to do a lot.”
The Legislature injected $1 million into the effort to better manage algal blooms in Utah Lake. About $400,000 of that will go toward an algae harvest study conducted by Utah Valley University and the rest toward monitoring algae and treating it around marinas, Barnes said.
Removing or treating algal blooms in a cost-effective way would make the lake safer, allowing residents and visitors more time to enjoy Utah Lake in the hotter months. Those strategies would likely be useful on other water sources, including reservoirs around the state that experience algal blooms.
Research into the lake will hopefully help identify ways to target algal blooms, Gaddis said, because treating the entirety of the 90,000-acre lake would be cost prohibitive.
“Some of those might be more expensive,” Gaddis said, “but they also may be more effective, so we’d like to test that.”
The state plans to test a physical barrier system for the algal blooms, Gaddis said, since wind can blow the cyanobacteria across the lake, sometimes into areas that were already treated.
Preventing algal blooms in the first place
While treating or removing algae can manage the algal problem in the short term, the best way to get rid of toxic algal blooms is to prevent them in the first place by curtailing fertilizer and nutrient runoff.
A regulation passed last year requires new subdivision developers to create a design that keeps most pollution from lawns in the area. This means less fertilizer, lawn clippings and debris will wash away into the state’s waterways.
Residents can also do their part by not leaving enough excess fertilizer, lawn clippings or other plant matter lying around, because those get swept away by rain into stormwater systems and waterways.
The Agricultural Voluntary Incentive Program, a partnership between the Division of Water Quality and the Department of Agriculture and Food (DAF) with a $2 million budget, pays farmers to work with the department on a nutrient management plan. These plans could improve crop yields and soil health while also reducing the amount of fertilizer that runs off the fields into the streams, rivers and lakes during a rainstorm.
Under the plan, farmers are paid $1,000 to work with DAF staff and implement the plan. After one year, they receive another $12 per acre managed under the nutrient plan.
“We basically pay farmers to manage their nutrients in a way that’s water-quality protective,” Gaddis said. “That’s appropriate levels of manure spreading and fertilizer use, good soil testing, good infrastructure to keep manure where it needs to be and keep it out of the streams in the state.”
Wastewater infrastructure improvement projects are taking place across the state, funded with about $1 billion from the Legislature, so those sites can better process wastewater.
Solutions in practice
Want to do your part in preventing toxic algal blooms? Utah State University recommends the following:
• Trim your lawn to 3 to 4 inches in length.
• Mulch your lawn clippings. Returning your grass to the lawn can reduce nitrogen fertilization needs by 50%.
• Use an inexpensive soil test to determine your actual fertilizer needs.
• Avoid midsummer fertilizing and practice proper irrigation techniques that avoid runoff.
USU lawn care guide: https://tinyurl.com/USUext.