The Provo River is now being diverted into recently constructed channels and ponds along a reconstructed river delta near Utah Lake. It's considered by state and federal wildlife officials as a "major milestone" in the efforts to preserve the threatened June sucker endemic in the two bodies of water.
Dozens of people, including federal, state and local officials, gathered at the Lakeshore Bridge Trailhead near Utah Lake State Park, holding their phones and cheering as an excavator removed one last dirt barrier, allowing the river water to flow into the restored delta Thursday.
"The reconnection of the Provo River to the delta will help to safeguard the threatened June sucker, expand recreational opportunities for community residents and accelerate efforts underway to expand access to clean, reliable water throughout the region," said Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for water and science at the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The project began in 2020, as a way to reconnect the interface between the Lower Provo River and Utah Lake. The river's delta and flood plain were historically "vegetated with emergent wetlands and riparian areas" in an area that is important for fish and other wildlife, according to state and federal biologists.
Crews have gradually worked to build 23,050 linear feet of a new channel within a 260-acre space less than a mile north of the state park over the past few years, while also constructing ponds and dikes that repair the delta. They've also planted more than 150,000 native plants in the area and an irrigation well to supply water to those plants.
The team has seeded and mulched about 58 acres of habitat while also removing phragmites and other invasive plants, according to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. The primary goal is to restore the habitat of an area that is particularly vital for juvenile June suckers.
In fact, Department of the Interior officials called it a "key component" of the June Sucker Recovery Implementation Program that was created in 2002 after the species had fallen to a wild spawning population estimate of just 300 in 1999. That's because it aimed to open up a "bottleneck" near Utah Lake, keeping the program from "successfully reestablishing all June sucker life cycles," said Gene Shawcroft, general manager at the Central Water Conservancy District.
The species, which can only be found in the river and lake, remains protected through the Endangered Species Act, though it was downlisted from endangered to threatened in 2021 because of other actions implemented by the program.
"Diverting the Provo River into the recreated delta is a huge step forward in the effort to recover the threatened June sucker," Shawcroft said. "The delta will provide the opportunity for successful spawning, rearing and recruiting of new June suckers."
Though Thursday marked a major milestone in the project, it isn't complete just yet. The project also plans to downsize the existing Provo River path between Lakeshore Drive and Lakeview Parkway; build a small dam near Utah Lake to maintain water levels in the existing river channel; and construct berms along the south edge of the delta and the new Provo River channel east of Lakeview Parkway, according to Provo River Project officials.
The $51 million project, included in the Central Utah Project, received about $11.8 million from the $50 million Central Utah Project Completion Act, which was included in the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
In addition to the habitat measures, the project also calls for new trails, trailhead parking areas, restrooms, nonmotorized boat launches, fishing platforms and several other recreational features for people who visit the area in the future. However, the project area remains closed to the general public until it is completed in 2024.
Contributing: Kristin Murphy