How Utah Lake once sustained tribes and Mormon pioneers and why it needs help

After neglecting it for decades, Utahns want to make Utah Lake great again, but are sharply divided over how or even what that means.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jacob Holdaway talks about Walkara Way, a project to rehabilitate several miles of Utah Lake shoreline on land owned his family and other private landowners, on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022.

In 1848, a pioneer named Shadrach Holdaway arrived in Utah to join a growing colonies of Mormon settlers who were turning the eastern edge of the Great Basin desert into what they hoped would become an agricultural oasis.

Nestled on arable land fed by several rivers pouring out of the nearby mountains, the valley encircling what became known as Utah Lake, seemed like the perfect place.

White settlement began there in April 1849 with the arrival of 30 families who took up farming along the Provo River. Among those first Latter-day Saints in Utah Valley, Holdaway acquired a large holding on the northeast shore of Utah Lake in what is now the growing town of Vineyard.

Thus began a profound reordering of Utah’s landscapes whose ramifications persist — for better or worse — to this day. Nowhere is this legacy more apparent than with Utah’s 150-square-mile namesake lake, now the focus of a debate over how to reverse environmental damage arising from decades of misuse and neglect.

“Utah Lake suffered from a negative narrative for a very long time,” says biologist Sam Rushforth, emeritus dean of science at Orem’s Utah Valley University. “People in Utah, we love our lakes clear and deep and full of trout. That’s just not what Utah Lake is and never has been. It’s a travesty that we have allowed that negative narrative to take hold, because the lake is great.”

But the lake is also in trouble, having lost much of its native flora and fauna, and its restoration has become among Utah’s most divisive issues.

The first to go

Sam Rushforth, emeritus dean of science at Orem’s Utah Valley University, says "it's a travesty that we have allowed that negative narrative to take hold, because [Utah Lake] is great.”

The lake was originally named for the Timpanogos band of the Shoshone who inhabited these lands at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains, living in balance with the landscape for centuries. Settlers gradually, sometimes violently, pushed out the native inhabitants. By 1872, the Timpanogos were gone, with the few survivors resettling on the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation.

Back then, Utah Lake was a much different place than it is today, lined with native reeds and wetlands that supported herds of big game animals and flocks of migratory waterfowl. Its waters teemed with June suckers, cutthroat trout and other native fish species.

The lakebed was blanketed with aquatic vegetation, which provided food and safe haven for young fish, populated with mollusks whose digestive tracts filtered the water and kept the sediments in place.

For generations, various Shoshone bands gathered on the lake’s shores for an annual fish festival to celebrate the lake’s bounty, according to Mary Murdock Meyer, chief executive of the Timpanogos Nation.

“Our people raised families around these waters. We laughed and played. We worked and toiled. We swam. We fished. We utilized the surrounding foliage to make the necessary tools and medicines,” Meyer said at last year’s Utah Lake Symposium. “Above all, we prayed. We held ceremonies. We danced, and we sang around the lake.”

Within a century of the pioneers’ arrival, much of this biological diversity would, like the Timpanogos, be gone, largely replaced by phragmites and other invasive plants, nonnative fish and cyanobacteria that produce toxic blooms along the shore in the summer.

The introduction of carp as a food source in 1883 was a huge success — but also among the lake’s biggest disasters.

The large Asian fish proliferated, displaced native fish that people actually did like to eat, and dominated the lake’s biomass. Even worse, carp root around on the lakebed in search of food, tearing out the aquatic vegetation that played such a vital role supporting native fish and aquatic invertebrates, explains Rushforth, who has spent 50 years studying the lake’s ecosystems.

Pioneers like Holdaway did not set out to ruin the lake but rather to build a civilization in a beautiful, yet harsh, place, harnessing what resources the lake, its tributaries and nearby Wasatch Mountains could offer. By channeling streams, introducing nonnative fish into the lake, chasing off the deer and elk, they set the stage for the lake’s rapid degradation through a series of cascading but unforeseen impacts.

Conflicting visions

(The Salt Lake Tribune) A man fishes a marshy area of Utah Lake circa 1910.

Utah Lake’s recovery is now a top priority for state leaders, but how to restore it has become a bone of contention, pitting scientists, Native Americans and environmentalists against real estate developers who say they can dredge the lake back to health.

Today, Holdaway’s great-great-great-grandson Jacob Holdaway, whose family still owns large, undevelopable tracts along the shore, wants to save the lake by bringing people and grazing animals back to its shores.

Growing up here, Holdaway heard stories about the Native Americans who once roamed the valley and survived on abundant fish pulled from the lake.

“I just thought it was so strange that they lived here, yet nobody around here knew that they were here and that this was their land,” says Holdaway during a recent visit to the family’s property. “I knew they would build these shelters called wickiups. When I was little kid, I’d be like, ‘Oh, I’m going down to the property and I’m going to build a wickiup.’”

Holdaway is the visionary behind Walkara Way, a proposed nature preserve on 1,000 acres of private land along the shore. By stitching together a series of easements, he hopes to develop a public-access pathway between Provo and Vineyard, part of a 98-mile trail that someday would encircle the entire lake.

Last year, legislative supporters secured a $4.4 million appropriation to help fund the project, which includes an education center Holdaway wants to call The Wickiup. Walkara Way is named for the tribal chief who led the Timpanogos people at the time of Mormon settlement and sometimes traded with — and other times fought — the pioneers.

The plan is to plant up to 5,000 trees, build three miles of trail, reestablish wetlands with the help of artificial beaver dams and construct raptor nests. Holdaway also wants to put cows on the land to knock back the phragmites, the 10-foot-high invasive reeds choking the shorelines.

We’re not going to have any deer, we’re not going to have any elk come back at the levels that we need to maintain a healthy ecosystem. They’re just not going to come back,” says Holdaway, who lives on the family’s original homestead beside Shadrach Holdaway’s still-standing tiny historic home, surrounded by rapidly expanding subdivisions and a golf course.

“The dairy farmers went bankrupt between 1998 and 2003,” he adds. “So there’s no hoofed animals to send down there to have a natural cleaning.”

To demonstrate cattle can get the job done at minimal cost, he turned 30 head onto 50 fenced acres last year. After about three months, most of the phragmites were gone. Holdaway was not in it for the money, but the rancher who owned the cattle paid him $1,500.

A source of food and water

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jacob Holdaway has plans for a project to rehabilitate several miles of Utah Lake shoreline on land owned his family and other private landowners on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022.

Downstream to the north, the Great Salt Lake is Utah’s iconic body of water. But the much smaller Utah Lake is the one most connected with the state’s pioneer and Indigenous heritage.

Unlike the vast saline lake, Utah Lake provided a seemingly inexhaustible source of food and water, and people lived and worked on its shores. According to some pioneer accounts, fish were so plentiful that they could be hauled in by hand or unbaited hooks.

Today, Saratoga Springs, Lehi, Vineyard and other fast-growing cities border the lake, and new subdivisions are pressing against its high waterline.

These waters sustained Utahns, both Indigenous and Latter-day Saints, in ways the Great Salt Lake never could, and yet, few nontribal Utahns knew much about Utah Lake or even cared about it.

“All of the early [pioneers] were very practical in their orientation. They were not looking for recreation or beauty. They were looking for food,” Rushforth says. “It was well into the 20th century that we began treating sewage. We used to run raw sewage into the lake.”

The effluent, along with uncontrolled industrial and agricultural runoff, degraded the water quality with nutrients and heavy metals. Subsequently a “negative narrative” about Utah Lake took root that persists to this day, and is now helping to promote a radical proposal to “restore” the lake by dredging and building artificial islands.

In February, at his monthly news conference, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox declared the lake so compromised that a major intervention is in order.

“There’s no question Utah Lake is a disaster right now. It’s our most underutilized asset. It’s our most underutilized resource. And every year we have major issues with Utah Lake. There has to be dredging, and it’s incredibly expensive,” he said. “Everyone also agrees that something has to be done with Utah Lake. The controversy is over what and how to pay for it.”

Seven generations ahead

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) An ancient petroglyph at the Adelbert Doyle Smith Family Preserve on the west side of Utah Lake in 2019.

Cox is expected to sign legislation creating the Utah Lake Authority, a powerful new state agency with jurisdiction over land-use and rehabilitation decisions.

Rushforth and other scientists who study the lake reject this characterization of the lake’s condition, arguing current restoration efforts — like phragmites and carp removal along with habitat restoration — are working. Endangered June suckers are rebounding and algal blooms are declining, except in Provo Bay.

The lake restoration people are doing their best to spread, to deepen the negative narrative,” Rushforth says. “The lake is not toxic. The lake is not deeply polluted. The lake has lots of nutrients and always has had. The lake is very productive and always will be.”

The company behind the Utah Lake Restoration Project argues the lake is terminally ill due to accumulated pollutants in lakebed sediments. It proposes deepening the lake by 7 feet and sequestering the contaminated sediments into 34 new islands, some of which would be developed. According to the promotional literature, the result would be a clear, clean lake with beaches and navigable water for recreation.

What dredging proponents call “restoration,” however, Mary Murdock Meyer describes as desecration of a sacred place. Her people may no longer live in Utah Valley, but she says they deserve a say in what happens to the lake that sustained their ancestors.

Like the endangered June suckers, the Timpanogos “have endured near extinction and deserve to live,” Meyer says. “Think about tomorrow and the future generations. We, as native people, say you must look ahead seven generations when making decisions because what we decide today affects future generations.”