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Lawmakers issue 'call to arms' to help struggling Utah Lake

SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah lawmaker said the state should no longer be content to have a vibrant Utah Lake on its bucket list of things to do and should instead pursue an accelerated plan to restore it to good health.

Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, is sponsoring HCR26 to encourage an aggressive treatment regiment for Utah's largest freshwater lake, which suffered an unprecedented algal bloom outbreak last summer.

"It's time to turn Utah Lake into a gem," McKell told members of the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee on Friday. "I don't want to put Utah Lake on a bucket list any longer."

Utah Lake suffers myriad problems that aren't an easy fix, said Walt Baker, the state's director of the Utah Division of Water Quality.

"What plagues Utah Lake is complicated and the things are interrelated," Baker said, noting that the lake cannot "heal itself" from the problems caused by nutrient pollution, invasive plant and fish species, and suspended silt on the lake bottom.

"There is a tremendous yuck factor in the bottom of Utah Lake," he said.

Baker said the division is working with multiple partners to address the challenges at Utah Lake, and prioritizing the effort to solve the lake's struggle is encouraging.

"(HCR26) is a call to arms," he said.

Utah Lake was once a pristine body of water that fed hungry pioneers with Bonneville cutthroat trout as they labored to build the state's first temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, according to Mike Styler, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

Eventually the trout population was wiped out and the June sucker — found only in Utah Lake — was decimated as well. Someone eventually thought to introduce carp, a species native to Europe and Asia, but widely regarded today as a trash fish.

Styler said 24 million pounds of carp have been pulled from Utah Lake in a long-term removal effort that has reduced their population to "maintenance" levels.

The state has also worked with multiple partners to tackle the problem of invasive phragmites that choke the shoreline of the lake and make it difficult for native plants to thrive. More than $1 million has been spent on that effort.

McKell's resolution urges a comprehensive solution to Utah Lake's problems, including improving conditions to deter the outbreak of harmful algal blooms

Baker cautioned that reducing the nutrient load into Utah Lake from wastewater treatment plants will come with a price tag.

Potential upgrades to wastewater treatment plants that discharge into the lake could collectively cost $100 million on the lower end to $1.2 billion over 20 years.

The state is working to develop nutrient standards for the lake to help improve its water quality.

Eric Ellis, executive director of the Utah Lake Commission, said efforts to improve conditions at the lake will ultimately have long-term benefits.

A survey showed Utah Lake is the most visited lake by Utah residents but also the most disliked.

Ultimately, Ellis added, the goal is to restore the lake to its grandeur celebrated more than a century ago.

The resolution passed unanimously.