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Utah Lake – A Lesson in Government Good Intentions

Utah Lake, surrounded by Provo and Orem to the east and Saratoga Springs to the west, is the third largest freshwater lake in the Western United States, though it lags far behind the top two – Lake Tahoe in California and Flathead Lake in Montana – in terms of tourism and recreation. But it wasn’t always so. In the 19th century Utah Lake was primed to be a destination lake, with its warm water, expansive shoreline, and mountain vistas. What caused this trajectory to derail? Government decisions. At the time they seemed necessary or well-intentioned, but they have had long-lasting ill effects.

Rather than being a pristine water destination, Utah Lake became “ski the scum” lake.

What was once a beautiful blue lake teeming with trout was turned into a muddy brown lake full of millions of pounds of carp. The lake didn’t have the mud or the carp when pioneers first settled nearby, nor for the first half-century as towns sprang up and commercial fishing operations flourished. But in the 1880s government officials started dumping carp into the lake by the trainload.

Immigrants from Asia and Eastern Europe were familiar with carp – a large fish capable of feeding many with a single catch – and officials thought introducing the fish into Utah Lake would be a great way to feed a lot of people. And during economic downturns it did. But even after just a few years locals saw the unintended consequences of introducing a fish that so aggressively took to the lake’s environment. Carp quickly ate the vegetation from the floor of the lake, diminishing habitat for other fish species. Native fish populations plummeted and disappeared, going from 13 kinds of fish to just four, one of which (the June sucker) is on the endangered species list. Loss of vegetation caused sediment to churn about, turning the lake from blue to muddy brown, further diminishing the lake’s appeal.

Then in 1941, needing to ramp up production during World War II, the government built a steel mill on the shores of Utah Lake. The site was chosen because of ample raw materials nearby while being well beyond Japanese and German bomber range. After a few years of operation, the mill – built with government funds – was sold at a deep discount to US Steel Corporation, which operated it until the late 1980s. After changing hands a couple of times, the mill closed its doors in 2001, a casualty of a changing market. At its height Geneva Steel employed 3,000 people and produced 60 percent of the steel used in the western United States. An important part of the local and national economy, Geneva nevertheless was an eyesore by the lake and a polluter in the valley. Studies showed increased respiratory disease during its operation, and since its closure air quality has improved dramatically.

In recent years local groups and government agencies have begun efforts to improve Utah Lake’s health and reputation. When agencies fenced off portions of the lake to keep carp away, underwater vegetation immediately returned, so now millions of tax dollars are being spent to remove 40 million pounds of carp from the lake. The vegetation will improve local fish populations, help get the June sucker off the endangered species list, and get rid of the ugly brown water in favor of the lake’s natural blue coloring. With Geneva Steel’s closure firmly in the past, the areas surrounding the site are in the midst of residential and commercial development. The invasive reeds that line parts of the shoreline – ruining beaches and providing no habitat value to the lake’s marine life – are being removed. Efforts are ongoing, but it took decades of government intervention to hinder the lake’s health and growth, and it will take even more effort to make it whole once more.

Dig Deeper:

Deseret News: Utah Lake Making a Comeback

Salt Lake Tribune: Living History: Utah Lake Provided Carp for the Needy

Utah Lake Commission

Utah Lake Master Plan

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