I grew up in Orem, one of the cities wedged between the Wasatch Mountains and Utah Lake. The lake is an unlikely shallow pool in the high pan of the Great Basin. It is the largest fresh remnant of the Lahontan and Bonneville inland seas, which swelled or shrunk in these valleys depending on climate for the last million years.
The mountains were what impressed me as a teenager. Timpanogos and Cascade were too steep and wild to build on. Their avalanches and debris flows kept them clean from subdivisions and other sins. I spent a lot of time on my bike in the mountains, and from there you can’t help but notice Utah Lake.
As the sun goes down, the lake illuminates the valley, casting light into the undersides of clouds and up somber canyons. In the wintertime and early spring, the lake’s living surface breaths snow into the mountains.
Even so, I didn’t set foot in Utah Lake until I was in high school (setting foot is the right term for a lake this shallow). I remember wading a half mile out into the warm desert water one summer night. I slipped into the lakebed, just leaving my face above the water. The night herons were out skimming the water, and one flew directly over me—inches from my face—as big and loud as an airliner from where I lay floating.
Now that I’m a grownup, I study Utah Lake and its tributaries. I am an ecosystem ecologist (redundant right?) and my work focuses on the water, energy, and nutrients that flow through our soils, streams, and lake.
Lots of people think that Utah Lake is trashed. It has been described as an ecological disaster, a poison lake, and more colorfully as a cesspool by some in our state legislature. The lake is suffering symptoms of eutrophication—a condition that develops when you over-fertilize an aquatic ecosystem. Eutrophication affects about three out of four of the Earth’s inland waters, but compared to most cases, Utah Lake has a minor and curable infection. Thanks to the lake’s shallow and wide bathymetry, it is resilient to the worst effects of eutrophication (anoxic dead zones that kill all animal life), and the lake is free of more toxic compounds like heavy metals, PCBs, and pesticides. With some upgrades to our wastewater treatment plants, better water conservation, and a continuation of the invasive-species removal efforts, Utah Lake could return to full ecological function.
Some people would like Utah Lake to be something different. Its natural shape or color are not good enough, and they’d like to perform cosmetic surgery to help the lake live up to their ideal. The proposal is to rip up the lakebed and drag the sediment into artificial islands—more space for pavement and buildings—and then somehow change the lake’s beautiful brown water to an unnatural blue. The engineers and investors say that these alterations will restore the lake, but their proposal doesn’t contain any feasible mechanisms for improving the hydrology or ecology of the lake.
On a more fundamental level, Utah Lake is one of the only wet spots in a vast sea of dry land. Before we fill it in, let’s take a long look from the mountains and from the lake shore at what we could lose forever. As for me, I believe we should keep Utah Lake shallow, clean, muddy, warm, beautiful, and at the very least . . . wet.