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Utah Lake Festival brings information, recreation to attendees

By Harrison Epstein - | Jun 4, 2023
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People ride sailboats on Utah Lake during the Utah Lake Festival, held Saturday, June 3, 2023.
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Different fish found in Utah Lake are displayed in a tank by the Utah Department of Natural Resources during the Utah Lake Festival on Saturday, June 3, 2023.
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People speak to scientists with the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands at the Utah Lake Festival on Saturday, June 3, 2023.
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Porter Ellis wins the cardboard boat race during the Utah Lake Festival, held Saturday, June 3, 2023.
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Water from Utah Lake that has been tested for E. coli is displayed by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality at the Utah Lake Festival on Saturday, June 3, 2023. The water was dyed yellow for testing.
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People cheer as friends and family take part in the cardboard boat race during the Utah Lake Festival, held Saturday, June 3, 2023.

As the summer starts, people in Utah Valley are looking for ways to get out in the sun and enjoy the warm weather. On Saturday, the Utah Lake Festival brought recreationists and residents along the shore to learn about the lake’s environment and get into the water for friendly competition.

Addy Valdez, a conservation biologist with the Utah Lake Authority, said the festival’s goal was to “show how much people love to improve this lake as well as embrace its already great naturalness.”

In addition to happening at the beginning of summer, and summer break for area students, the festival comes at an opportune time for Utah Lake. While cities and the county government have dedicated attention to flooding and high flows due to record-breaking snowmelt, the lake is reaping the benefits. According to Eric Ellis, executive director of the Utah Lake Authority, the lake has gone from water levels “6 feet below full” to 1 foot below full in part due to water managers working to ensure it doesn’t overfill and flood shoreline areas.

The festival was organized by the Utah Lake Authority, which replaced the Utah Lake Commission in 2023 to “to encourage recreation, facilitate improvements, and implement management strategies,” according to the agency’s website. The authority includes a 15-person governing body with local officials — mostly mayors and city council members — and statewide scientific leaders.

Groups present on Saturday talking with residents, all of whom have representatives within the lake authority, included the Department of Environmental Quality, Department of Natural Resources and the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

Lined in a row, scientists with the departments waited to talk with attendees about what they are each doing to rehabilitate and help Utah Lake. FFSL is responsible for maintaining the lakebed, with most of its work being Phragmites removal.

Phragmites, or common reeds, are found all along Utah Lake’s shore and are known to compete with native vegetation for natural resources. A focus this year for the department has been Sandy Beach in Spanish Fork, adding recreational infrastructure and coordinating restoration projects for the open space and wetland area, according to an FFSL handout.

DEQ, meanwhile, maintains focus on the water itself — particularly warning the public about potential algal blooms. On Friday, the lake was tested for algal blooms and none were identified, according to Hannah Bonner, an environmental scientist for the Utah Division of Water Quality.

“Now that it’s June, we’re already sampling highly recreated water bodies at least once a month proactively and we have a network of volunteers who are helping watch things even more,” Bonner said. “As soon as we indication of blooms, we up that to once a week.”

To avoid harmful agal blooms, those using Utah Lake are reminded to check water conditions ahead of time, not to swallow the water and be aware of the signs of a bloom. Signs of algal blooms can include water that resembles spilled paint, antifreeze or grass clippings and if the water itself has surface scum, discoloration or green globs at and below the surface.

While each department brought informational handouts, only one brought a live demonstration. Children checking the DNR booth came face to face with a fish tank containing different species found in Utah Lake and a model of a June sucker. No living June suckers, an threatened species found only in Utah Lake, were in the tank.

“June sucker is a big motivating factor for a lot of conservation efforts around the lake, but all those efforts tend to benefit sport fish people enjoy fishing too,” said Andrew Nagy, a June sucker biologist with the DNR’s Division of Wildlife Resources. “With these restoration efforts like the (Provo River) delta and the Hobble Creek restoration area, we’re hoping that within a few years we’ll see a lot more natural reproduction, hopefully creating a self-sustaining population.”

One difficulty noted by Ellis is the reputation of Utah Lake, though events like the festival are designed to change the public perception away from algal blooms and toward environmental and personal positives. People may not notice the changes, he said, because the work takes time and is done in increments.

“When we do shoreline restoration work, little by little, this huge wall of Phragmites has come down, slowly disappeared. And now we see native vegetation coming back and people are just thinking, ‘Oh, maybe the lake is high this year. I haven’t seen it in decades.’ But in fact, it’s because the shoreline has been largely restored,” Ellis said.

He added that projects enhancing marinas and public access points, along with the opening of the Provo River Delta, benefit people interested in fishing, recreation and environmental growth.

While scientists present Saturday were more than willing to explain their departments’ work with Utah Lake, the focus remained on public outreach.

“It’s a shallow natural lake. It’s got a lot of sediment in it. The average depth is only 9 feet — it’s not 35, it’s not 500, it’s only 9 — and so there’s a lot of sediment that comes up with waves,” said Valdez, the Utah Lake Authority biologist. “It looks yucky, looks gross, but the water quality is actually one of the better for natural lakes around here.”

Throughout the festival, people were invited to ride in sailboats across the lake or fish in the Provo River’s end, just before it flows into the lake. Before everyone went home, though, the 21 teams who signed up prepared for the cardboard boat race in the lake. Most took on water and sank just feet away from the shoreline while the first three finishers went home with trophies. Regardless, people fulfilled the authority’s mission with the festival and spent their day at Utah Lake.


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