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Can Utah Lake be free of toxic algae in 2021? A Utah company says yes

Sailboats are docked at Utah Lake’s Lindon Marina in Vineyard on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020.
Sailboats are docked at Utah Lake’s Lindon Marina in Vineyard on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020.
Yukai Peng, Deseret News

LINDON — In a season when blue-green algal growth is usually at its most problematic in Utah Lake, the Lindon Marina is cleaner than it’s been in years — possibly decades — according to Richard Allred, the CEO of Alpine Technical Services.

Alpine Technical Services is a water solutions company and was one of the two firms hired earlier in the summer to take part in a pilot program to begin treatment of blue-green algal growth in the lake, with hopes of finding at least a temporary fix to the problem.

Cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, grows naturally in water but becomes dangerous when in bloom.

It can be lethal to pets that swim in affected waters and causes a myriad symptoms in humans, including headaches, dizziness, rashes and gastrointestinal issues. The blooms can also precipitate more serious neurological problems.

The Lindon Marina is a popular recreation area in Utah Lake, but the summer months are some of the worst in terms of algal bloom.

“You’ve got to kind of think of it like a plant, so longer, hotter days is why you see them in the summer more often than other times,” said Jared Mendenhall, spokesman for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. “That’s like prime growing season. So they get some fertilizer, and then they have a long, hot day, and that’s the same as your lawn in front of your house.”

In fact, on July 6, the same day Alpine Technical Services began its treatments on the marina, the Utah Division of Water Quality took a sample of Utah Lake that showed unsafe levels of toxins produced by blue-green algae, according to the DEQ.

From then to now, there has been a marked difference in the quality of the marina’s water, according to Allred.

“People text us pictures, like, ‘I’ve never seen the lake like this in my life — this clean. What are you doing? This is amazing,’” he said.

Boats are reflected in the water at Utah Lake’s Lindon Marina in Vineyard on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020.
Boats are reflected in the water at Utah Lake’s Lindon Marina in Vineyard on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020.
Yukai Peng, Deseret News

What are they doing?

For all the positive results they’ve seen, Allred said the process of cleaning the lake is “fairly simple.”

Initially, the group treated the edges of the marina with an agricultural sprayer full of chemicals and then spread the rest of the solution in a zigzag pattern across the bay in a rowboat.

According to Allred, the solution disperses quickly and stays in the top meter and a half of the lake’s surface, which is important so that it doesn’t harm the helpful, necessary types of algae that grow at the bottom of the lake.

The treatment has been reapplied every two weeks since the beginning of the program, which will end as soon as the project’s funds run out.

The Utah Lake Commission was the sponsor of the project’s proposal and currently manages the initiative’s contract. The commission thought it better to institute a budget limit rather than a time limit for the pilot.

“We didn’t want to limit them and force them to stretch out the use of their product over the summer and not have that ability to adaptively manage to whatever the bloom scenario was,” said Eric Ellis, the executive director of the Utah Lake Commission.

The solution itself is a mixture of copper sulfate. According to a news release, it is 99.99% biologically active so that pollution isn’t a concern. It is also safe for humans and wildlife to ingest, according to the release.

“There have been lots of people over the years that have fear of using any products at all in lakes, but it is common and these products are used in drinking water systems as well,” Allred said.

In future years, if the company is chosen to continue its work, fewer treatments will be needed to keep the algae down, according to Allred. He hopes the treatment can be used as a preventative tool, before the blooms spiral out of control, rather than a reactive measure.

“If you get ahead of the blooms, then you stop it with a minimal amount of chemistry,” he said. “If you wait until they’re in full bloom and do a reactive treatment, then, yeah, it is going to take more chemistry. So the goal would be to stay on top of it with low doses.”

The company has been taking readings in the marina, which show the lake is cleaner than when they started, according to Allred, but there’s also the eye test.

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” he said. “I mean, you can see it.”

A clean lake in 2021

“Algae has really hurt visitation in the past,” said Ron Madson, Lindon Marina operator, in the press release. “Without ATS’s treatments, our inner marina would not have been usable for recreational use all summer. The treatments made the water quality in our marina excellent despite harmful algae bloom conditions right outside the marina. The application has been easy and remarkably effective.”

If blue-green algae were eliminated in the lakes of Utah, it would “absolutely” bring in quite a bit of financial revenue, according to Ellis, who said naming an exact dollar amount would be difficult.

However much it is, those extra funds could be available in the near future.

“It really is a reality — we could have a clean Utah Lake next year,” Allred said. “We’ll be presenting that: Here’s the process going forward and here’s the ease of the process going forward to treat the whole lake.”

Sailboats are docked at Utah Lake’s Lindon Marina in Vineyard on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020.
Sailboats are docked at Utah Lake’s Lindon Marina in Vineyard on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020.
Yukai Peng, Deseret News

The company will be presenting its results to the state of Utah during the third week of September. As part of the presentation, Allred will recommend continuing the treatments and expanding them to cover the entire lake as well as other bodies of water in Utah similarly plagued by algae.

“It should be our natural wonder, and it is kind of our natural disaster,” Allred said of Utah Lake. “Why wouldn’t we want clean water? Why wouldn’t we want a healthy lake? And why would we sit and watch a lake die?”

A complex equation

If only it were that simple.

Due to concerns about cost and the safety of the lake’s aquatic life, Ellis sees these treatments as viable short-term options that would eventually give way to a long-term solution.

“Anytime we undertake a project, an effort on that lake, it becomes so much more expensive than people might imagine,” he said. “And resources are incredibly limited on addressing those types of problems.”

He said for every thousand problems that the state encounters, only around 150 of those actually gain funding.

And despite the potential economic windfall that cleaning up the lake could present, it’s a much more convoluted matter than just money changing hands.

“It’s a difficult equation to bring dollars to the table on a project like Utah Lake when those that are bringing the dollars to the table aren’t necessarily the ones that would see that return,” Ellis said. “And so it is not the simple math equation that we would love for it to be.”

These questions of economic feasibility have stymied efforts in the past and frustrated people like Allred. However, the 2019 appropriation from the Utah Legislature that funded the pilot program was a “respectable sized” one, according to Ellis.

Additionally, the chemical solutions themselves aren’t perfect, either, he said.

Copper, when used liberally over a long period of time, can build up at the bottom of bodies of water, which can negatively impact marine life, he said. If there is any chance of that occurring, he thinks the lake would better suited by finding a solution that treats the “problems rather than the symptoms.”

One of the primary problems is the excess of nutrients in the water that cause the blue-green algae to grow out of control.

Ellis said the problem is currently being addressed in two ways.

First is the removal of carp, which eat plants that grow at the bottom of the lake and act as a “filter” for nutrients in the water. The second involves replacing the invasive phragmites, a type of reed that grow around the lake’s shoreline, with native plants that are better at absorbing nutrients.

According to Ellis, hundreds of thousands of dollars go toward toward removing the 8,300 acres of phragmites that grow on the lake’s banks each year.

Additionally, the Utah Lake Water Quality Study started a couple years ago and is in the middle of a five-year effort meant to develop criteria for the ideal amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen that would allow aquatic life in the lake to thrive but keep the lake open for recreational activities.

But the study still has years to go and the removal of phragmites is a massive project. Long-term solutions take time to deliver, and in the meantime, it is nice to have a backup.

“There are some phenomenal technologies out there for short-term solutions,” Ellis said. “And those were what we wanted to land on, and so that we have a couple solutions in our back pocket for those years or that time of year where we could really target blooms that would, let’s say, impact a big holiday weekend where we knew that lake usage would be high if the lake was clear and it would be destroyed if we had a big bloom.”