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Environmental experiments on Utah Lake could lead to solutions to restore it

Posted at 5:23 PM, Aug 23, 2023

AMERICAN FORK, Utah — Outside the Timpanogos Special Service District's wastewater treatment plant, a series of experiments are being conducted near the shoreline.

One looks at invasive carp and their influence on the lake, while another looks at clams that used to be native to the lake as a way of cleaning the water. There are experiments reintroducing native plants on the shore to fight invasive species and corrals on the water to look at phosphorus levels and how turbidity on the water impacts algae.

"A lot of these experiments are designed to give us better information," said Dr. Gustavious Williams, a professor of engineering at Brigham Young University, who is among the scientists carrying out the experiments. "Clams, plants, geochemical and sediment, and can we get some data so as we look at these restoration efforts we have actual data to work on rather just kind of an idea?"

Richard Mickelsen, the manager of the Timpanogos Special Service District told FOX 13 News on Wednesday that the experiments can help inform the best ways to help Utah Lake. The lake itself has dealt with a number of problems including harmful algal blooms, invasive carp and plant species and human demand.

"Since I run a waste treatment plant? I know how much biology it takes to clean the water. If I was going to do the same for the lake? What’s it going to take for the biology to do the work instead of man having to add chemicals. What can I do to help nature do its job?" Mickelsen said.

As they look to save the Great Salt Lake, political leaders have also begun to focus on Utah Lake (which feeds into the Great Salt Lake through the Jordan River). Bills have been passed on Utah's Capitol Hill exploring ways to help it. Other ideas have been proposed recently, including one company that floated the idea of dredging Utah Lake and building islands with the sediment, before it ran into regulatory hurdles and bankruptcy.

Members of the Wasatch Front Water Quality Council, made up of service districts and cities, showed FOX 13 News some of the experiments on Wednesday as they deliberate best practices for the lake. In a conference room, mollusks in a glass container ate up dirty lake water, as scientists discussed the prevalence of phosphorus in the water body and upstream.

"It’s exciting to have good, in-lake experiments demonstrating what is and isn’t necessarily going to work," said Eric Ellis, the executive director of the Utah Lake Authority, created by the legislature to oversee the lake.

Special service districts are also looking at costs for wastewater treatment plants should they have to implement stringent nutrient pollution regulations imposed by the state of Utah in addition to keeping up with growth (some estimates are up to $1 billion). The Utah Division of Water Quality is in the midst of its own study on Utah Lake.

"The goal is to take a technical approach, science and engineering approach to figure out what is the best fit," said division director John Mackey.

What the division determines could set environmental regulations governing wastewater treatment plants and nutrient pollutants. Mackey said the experiments and collaboration with the water council has been good.

"It’s fantastic. There’s been a lot of partnering, a lot of collaboration. Science is messier than a lot of people think," he said.

Conserve Utah Valley, an environmental group that has been closely watching efforts to revive Utah Lake, said it was optimistic about some of the research being done outside the Timpanogos Special Service District and the Division of Water Quality's study.

"This is great progress. We need to keep making progress. Let’s not take our foot off the gas," said Carol-Lyn Jardine, a member of Conserve Utah Valley's leadership board.

Jardine said her group would still like to see nutrient pollutant regulations.

"Reducing the nutrient pollution that is in the lake and in the Jordan River, that has to be the North Star for any restoration approach," she said.

If these experiments are ultimately successful? It could cost a lot of money to implement on the scale that Utah Lake would need.

"Getting them done at the size and scope that needs to be done is probably our biggest challenge," said Ellis. "That’s where we look for support from our legislative partners at the scope they need to be effective."

This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read all of our stories at