MIDWAY — No one is certain how whirling disease crept into the waters at the Midway fish hatchery. It could have been birds, maybe a raccoon, then again, it could have simply been contaminated water.
What is certain is that the Midway hatchery is now closed, and before the hatchery can open again, clean water needs to be found. Old wells are contaminated and so is groundwater.
Whirling disease starts with a parasite. It is spread by small worms, called tubiflex, which eat the parasite, which in turn is eaten by fish. The parasite causes, among other things, a curving of the spine in fish, which causes them to swim in circles, or whirl.
Within the past year, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has drilled six test wells at the Midway hatchery. The deepest is 253 feet.
"We've tested the water now for about a year, and things look good," said Charles Bobo, hatchery manager for the DWR. "We'd like to find bedrock, but we haven't yet. What we plan to do now is ask for permission to drill a production well."
Permission could be three to six months coming. It will then take about two months to drill the well.
"We'll then do the usual tests . . . bacteria tests, dye tests to make sure the source is good and clean and will stay that way," he added.
And if the well water proves to be clean?
"Then we can start rebuilding the hatchery. Without a clean water source, you can't have a hatchery," he said. "If we do get a good water source, then I think we're looking at two to three years before we're back in operation."
In March of last year, whirling disease was found in the Middle Provo River between Jordanelle and Deer Creek. By April, parasite spores were found in the hatchery. More than 1 million fish had to be killed, and a million more redirected from scheduled planting sites to other sites that were already contaminated with the disease.
The Midway hatchery produced about 21 percent of the state's fish. The loss meant that quotas were cut back statewide, and in many cases, some waters were not planted — and they still haven't been.
At first, biologists thought whirling disease spores were carried to the Midway ponds by birds or animals.
Later, however, three springs that fed the hatchery were isolated, and sentinel fish were placed there for testing. Fish in two of the three springs eventually tested positive for the disease.
The conclusion was that the water from the Provo River, which flows into irrigation canals throughout the area, is seeping through the porous ground and contaminating the water.
Disease-proofing the hatchery will cost millions. Rearing raceways, for example, will need to be built above ground to avoid contaminated groundwater. Also, the raceways will need to be enclosed in order to avoid contamination from birds or animals.
The old raceways, said Bobo, are more than 40 years old, and contaminated water continues to flow through cracks and holes in the concrete.
Dirt ponds, used to raise larger fish, were covered over and because of their vulnerability will not be reopened.
Whirling disease was first discovered in Utah in a private hatchery in Loa in 1991. Since that time, it has spread to many of Utah's most popular fishing waters, including the Logan and Weber rivers, Rockport, Deer Creek, Otter Creek, Minersville and Hyrum reservoirs.
Once it has been found in a natural river or reservoir, it is impossible to eliminate. The cost of simply trying to contain the disease here in Utah has run into the millions of dollars.