Utah’s two biggest development projects face an unlikely foe: mosquitoes

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Quinten Salt checks the water for mosquito larva in the wetlands north of the Salt Lake International Airport, Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019.

As he wades into a duck hunting club marsh, mosquito abatement rural field supervisor Quinten Salt drags a long-handled dipper through a murky puddle and ladles out a sample for inspection.

“Nice, stagnant water in salt grass,” he says — prime habitat for the mosquitoes that abundantly populate this area northwest of Salt Lake City.

Sure enough, after a few dips, Salt finds 15 larvae wriggling through a water sample. They’re harmless now, but once they mature to adult mosquitoes, they’ll begin their airborne quest for a blood meal, using light and carbon dioxide to guide them.

And soon, they’ll have more convenient feeding options, with a state prison project and inland port development set to bring thousands of warm-bodied inmates and workers to the area in Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant.

Ary Faraji, an entomologist who works as the executive director of the city’s Mosquito Abatement District, said the location where two large state-sponsored projects will develop is “the most prime mosquito habitat probably this west side of the Mississippi.”

“Our greater Salt Lake region really generates a lot of snowmelt in the early spring, and a lot of that water tries to make its way off the mountains and towards the Great Salt Lake, but it never really quite reaches there because it’s all impounded in the duck club and the wetland habitats that are out on our west side,” he said. “As a result of that, that really generates a large abundance of mosquitoes," which thrive in stagnant water.

With massive population growth in Utah and the Salt Lake Valley, encroaching development on this land near the Great Salt Lake undoubtedly will bring with it more calls for mosquito abatement.

Those who oppose building in this area worry about the unintended consequences that it could have on taxpayer dollars, human health and the ecology and wildlife of the area.

“The Northwest Quadrant is a great place for antelopes, insects and birds, its current occupants,” Brian Moench, a physician who also is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, wrote in an informal report on pesticide use in the inland port project area. “But the attempt to make it inhabitable for humans and an economic hub would likely involve an unprecedented use of chemicals that are biologic poisons, increasing exposure to all residents of the Salt Lake Valley, something that cannot be dismissed as safe.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Aerial photos of the Salt Lake Valley including the new prison under construction, inland port area, Kennecott Copper tailings pond, refineries and recent Bountiful fire scar as seen on Sept. 12, 2019.

More people, more mosquitoes

When Salt Lake City’s Mosquito Abatement District was created in 1923, it was among the first in the country dedicated to controlling the insects — a reflection of high mosquito activity on the west side that officials wanted to keep from swarming into the city, Faraji said.

Employees there work, not to eradicate mosquitoes, but to suppress populations in an effort to maintain quality of life for residents, as well as to prevent potential public health problems, including pathogens the insects carry, such as West Nile virus.

The district operates as an autonomous unit of government that generates its own revenues from property taxes. Residential property owners in Salt Lake City pay about $7.32 per $100,000 value of their homes for mosquito abatement, which adds up to a budget of $3.6 million this year.

The new $780 million state prison, however, will be exempt from property taxes. That’s a concern for mosquito abatement, since the facility west of Salt Lake City International Airport will begin accepting 3,600 inmates in January 2022 and will likely require additional abatement.

Prisoners “are breathing out carbon dioxide, which is one of the main olfactory cues that mosquitoes use to find their hosts,” Faraji said, adding that lights at the facility also will lure the insects. “I have no doubt in my mind that places like that are going to be attracting a lot of mosquitoes and, as a result, they’re going to be asking for our increased services."

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ary Faraji talks about the district's plan to combat the mosquito problem in the valley, at Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District. Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019.

The bugginess of the new prison has always been cited as a drawback; overnight traps that catch hundreds of mosquitoes in Draper, where the existing prison is located, haul in thousands at the northwest quadrant location, according to Faraji.

Prison construction workers have certainly noticed.

“For us, it’s something to be expected,” said Chris Ylincheta, general manager of Reynolds Excavation, Demolition, and Utilities. “But there are a lot of mosquitoes, and they seem to be fairly large. Including deer flies and a lot of biting insects.”

Sen. Luz Escamilla has noted there’s a reason the northwest quadrant remains largely untouched: It’s always been considered an industrial area and not a suitable place for people to live.

“We need to acknowledge that the state prison is being built in wetlands, right?” said Escamilla, a Salt Lake City Democrat who’s running for mayor.

Though she believes the prison site was wrong to begin with, she argues officials need to identify a funding stream for mosquito abatement now that the state is committed.

Marilee Richins, deputy executive director of the Utah Department of Administrative Services, said “a plan is in place.”

So far, mosquito control at the location has cost about $12,000; Richins estimates that figure will double over the next few months as the project ramps up, with nearly 2,000 workers laboring at the prison site during peak construction.

The state has been paying for mosquito abatement out of the prison construction fund, Richins said, but it’s unclear who will bear the cost of ongoing insect treatment once the facility opens. The abatement district will likely assess a charge based on the square footage of the facility property, and the prison will fold this expense into its operational budget, she said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The men's max cell unit area takes shape as crews move a side by side single-occupancy cell block, stacking them into place at the new state prison in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019.

Faraji estimated in 2016 that it would cost more than $160,000 a year to fight the bugs around the prison. Based on the site’s 1.3 million square feet, Faraji now expects the facility will be asked to pay around $20,000 annually for abatement. Despite the apparent shortfall, Faraji’s agency says it will make the most of the resources it has and hopes that new taxable development will help keep up abatement efforts.

He said the district is collaborating with the state to identify funding and to ensure “that they are also providing their fair share towards mosquito surveillance and control and that burden would not fall back on the residents of Salt Lake City."

Nobody has talked to Faraji about how the controversial inland port, a massive distribution hub planned for a large swath of land in Salt Lake City’s northwest side, will impact the mosquito district, he said. But he anticipates that any businesses built in the project area will bring in additional property tax revenue that will help pay for increased demand for services.

His biggest concern with that project is the prospect of tax breaks that could cut into revenue needed for mosquito abatement.

“Our legislators are notorious for deals ... for businesses,” Faraji said.

Human health impacts?

While swarms of mosquitoes can pose a health risk, some say the chemicals used to control insect populations pose their own hazards.

Moench, of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, is among those sounding the alarm about how these compounds could affect people in the inland port area and beyond.

One class of insecticide in particular — those containing pyrethroid compounds — is toxic to the brain and is associated with a range of neurological and brain diseases, he said.

Faraji, who noted that the district uses a small amount of synthetic pyrethroids when targeting adult mosquitoes, countered that all the products his district uses to control mosquito populations are safe for humans and the environment.

“Everything that we do is based on science and scientific data," Faraji said, “from the pesticides that we use to the actual control measures.”

The district focuses about 90% of its efforts on larviciding, or controlling mosquitoes in aquatic habitats before they begin flying, Faraji said. When the district targets adult mosquitoes, typically only when populations get out of control, he said his team sprays droplets of insecticide smaller than the size of a human hair to knock them down.

“If these products were not safe," he said, “we would not be using them.”

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) UPHE Board President, Dr. Brian Moench, speaks at a press conference, July 12, 2017.

Moench doesn’t believe any insecticides are risk-free.

“Are there insecticides that are safe for human exposure?” he asked. “The answer to that is: probably not. We’re not aware of any that are safe for humans, especially for pregnant mothers and the potential or likely exposure to their fetus.”

Moench points to medical research suggesting the risks of any level of exposure to pesticides, including a 2009 Endocrine Society study that warned “any level of exposure at all” to certain hormone-disrupting chemicals could cause endocrine or reproductive abnormalities.

And the captive population at the state prison, he added, will have no way to avoid exposure to the mosquito-killing chemicals.

Moench said these risks aren’t limited to people living or working in the northwest quadrant, because the wind could potentially carry some of these chemicals into more heavily populated areas — an even greater concern as the Great Salt Lake dries because insecticides that fall on the water’s surface eventually could turn into airborne dust.

“Spraying the ‘mosquito heaven’ area of the inland port will contaminate the entire valley,” he wrote in an email.

While the physicians group opposes the inland port primarily because of air pollution concerns, it sees the mosquito problem as yet another reason the area should remain undeveloped.

“It has always been a poor place for a prison, an industrial park, or an inland port,” Moench wrote. “It should be left alone.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Food for birds

The wetlands near the Great Salt Lake are considered among the world’s most important areas for migratory birds, since many species of the global avian population “spend some part of their life cycle in Great Salt Lake habitats,” according to a report on the Utah State Correctional Facility Site Assessment prepared by members of the National Audubon Society who work to preserve this area.

North America has lost 3 billion birds in the last 50 years, according to a study from ornithologists and government agencies published Thursday. That represents an enormous biodiversity loss, they concluded, though wetland birds like ducks and geese are on the rise amid conservation efforts.

But the Audubon Society, which declined to talk to The Salt Lake Tribune for this story, has raised concerns in the past that increased mosquito abatement as a result of economic development could have “substantial impacts in the surrounding wetland ecosystem” of the Great Salt Lake area.

In its report on the prison site location, the Audubon Society worried particularly about the impacts of a decreasing mosquito population, since the insects serve, especially in their larval stages, as a food source for a variety of organisms. The group also expressed concern that abatement could impact nontarget species, like nonbiting midges, which are closely related to mosquitoes and are “an important food source for shorebirds.”

While Faraji says his products target only mosquitoes, Heather Dove, president of the Great Salt Lake Audubon, shares the fear that even targeted products could impact other insects.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Gulls in flight around a hiker as Great Salt Lake Audubon hosts the 9th Annual Gullstravaganza, gull-watching event at Farmington Bay on Feb. 2, 2019.

“They always say, ‘Oh, it just touches the mosquitoes,’ but it really doesn’t,” she said. “It’s really all the little microorganisms.”

She’s also nervous that businesses and developers in the northwest quadrant will want increased mosquito abatement efforts for the “torturous biting gnats and deer flies” in the area during prime bug months.

“People, when they start working out there, are going to be screaming when those times of the year hit,” she said. “And we’re worried that they’re really going to slam the area with more mosquito abatement even though that chemical they use doesn’t touch those insects.”

The ecosystem of the Great Salt Lake, one of Utah’s most well-known landmarks, is thought to be environmentally fragile already. The lake has shrunk to half its historic size since the pioneers arrived in 1847, according to researchers at Utah State University — and most of that decline can be attributed to human water use for industrial, agricultural and economic activities.

Environmentalists worry that the massive inland port and other development could further push the area over the edge, threatening the interconnected plants and animals.

“All of those birds come to the Great Salt Lake to feed on the bugs that feed on the microbes that feed on the lower levels of the food chain,” said Jaimi Butler, coordinator of the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College. “So any impacts to any part of the food chain are going to ripple out to other parts of the ecosystem.”

Faraji said he and his agency will do their best to maintain public health and quality of life for Salt Lake City residents in the face of the anticipated growth and heightened demand for services in the northwest quadrant.

And while he dismissed concerns about human health impacts as a result of mosquito abatement, he acknowledged that there will likely be consequences as development disrupts what have traditionally been mosquito habitats.

“We’re going to have additional cases of arboviral [insect-borne] diseases; we’re going to have additional service requests and demands on our services,” he said. “That’s just part of the game. That’s really no different than someone that builds a cabin up in the woods and then they complain about the bears. The bears have been there. The mosquitoes have been here and the closer you get to them, the more exacerbated the problems are going to be.”