SARATOGA SPRINGS — A century ago Utah Lake was a destination spot dotted with leisure resorts, a jewel surrounded by mountains. But a series of unsavory events decade after decade turned the lake into something to stay away from.
Even intrepid lake users would perpetuate an unlikely moniker: "Ski the scum — Utah Lake."
"There are people that have lived here for a long time that have forgotten it's there, or never really knew," said Reed Price, who grew up in Orem, within sight of the lake, and who now leads a consortium of Utah County municipalities called the Utah Lake Commission.
It's like the lake, in plain sight, became invisible to a population teeming with water sports enthusiasts. Residents wanting an attractive vista turned their backs on the lake and gazed at the mountains instead. Residential development pressed toward mountain benches, instead of any lakeside lifestyle.
But now, after decades of pushing people away, Utah Lake just might be staging a comeback:
• Work is under way to rid the lake of 40 million pounds of troublesome carp.
• Unwanted plant life is being cleared away, making way for new shoreline access.
• The steel mill by the lake and its smokestacks are gone, with Geneva now a memory.
• Perhaps most importantly, efforts under way are designed to turn the lake from its murky brown water to blue again, necessary to overcome the lake's negative reputation.
With a community like Saratoga Springs pushing for a lakefront lifestyle, it just may be that Utah Lake’s time has finally arrived.
THE EARLY DAYS
Utah Lake was important to the Mormon settlers in the late 1840s because its fish were an important source of food. Commercial fishing operations on the lake were well-established long before the end of the 19th century.
Overfishing, in fact, prompted the U.S. Fish Commission to start ferrying barrels of live carp by train to Utah and other depleted fisheries in the 1880s. "A lot of the immigrants from Eastern Europe and Asia knew the common carp as a good food fish. They were big and feed a lot of people," said Mike Mills, fish biologist with the Central Utah Water Conservancy District. "The government was stocking them all over the country."
Recreational interests in the lake began to surge about the same time. Utah Lake ranks third in size only behind Lake Tahoe in California and Flathead Lake in Montana for natural freshwater lakes in the Western U.S. Its diverse shoreline and expanse of open water created plenty of space for boaters, fishing and lakeside attractions.
The Saratoga resort opened on the north end of the lake in 1884. The Garden City Resort opened near the mouth of the Provo River in 1889. The Geneva Resort opened in 1903 at the site where the Lindon Boat Harbor is today. A history compiled by the June Sucker Recovery Implementation Program says a competitive business arena saw 20 resorts come and go — some of them renamed continuations of earlier enterprises.
"The lake was a gathering place for the community," Price said. "But then something happened so it lost the magic that it once had."
The same devastating drought that led to the Dust Bowl in the 1930s dramatically shrank the size of the lake, which only has an average depth of 9 to 10 feet when it is full. Less water meant a boost in salinity, which was hard on wildlife. Carp proved to be among the most resilient fish in the lake; more popular fish like trout did not.
"People have described it as a kind of carp heaven," Mills said. "They do extremely well there."
As early as the 1920s, observers could tell the carp were stripping the lake bed of vegetation. Less vegetation meant more sediment stirred into the water, which took on an increasingly brown color. Agricultural runoff and other sources boosted phosphate levels in the lake, decreasing water quality that continued to drop as communities around the lake dumped raw sewage in through the 1960s.
The Geneva lakeside resort was replaced by a war-effort steel mill that took its name in the 1940s. Geneva Steel and its smoke-belching stacks became important to the local economy but did not give the lake a resort look.
Thick reeds called phragmites began to displace sandy beaches. Private land ownership around the lake limited public access.
Federal water quality mandates new in the 1970s gradually began improving the quality of the water in the lake, but it was still muddy-looking because of the turbidity.
The lake had a firmly entrenched image crisis that continued even after cities built wastewater treatment plants and the steel mill closed in 2001 and was dismantled.
"Any pollution before that could have contributed to that 'ski the scum' mentality that persists," Price said.
Price believes the multiplicity of physical and aesthetic barriers has made the urban side of Utah Lake a collection of communities focused on the mountains. "Is there a lake culture? No."
A NEW PERSPECTIVE
The area around the former Saratoga resort on the north end of the lake was incorporated as a city in 1997, bringing a new population to a side of the lake that had never had suburban-style residential development. Residents still enjoy the vista of the mountains, but now they began enjoying the mountains' reflections off the lake as well.
Justin Libberton and his wife, Nicole, moved their young family to Saratoga Springs from American Fork almost four years ago. They do not own a boat, and Justin did not have a personal incentive to live closer to the lake.
"Number one was the price of the home," he said of the attraction to Saratoga Springs. "Price is what drew us to even consider the neighborhood out there. Once we went out there to check it out, we saw the view," he said, listing the lake as the second attraction for their move. "The view is just ridiculously amazing" and helps make the extra commute time to get to work in Provo worth the trouble.
Don and Luanne Markham visited Utah to look for investment properties, never expecting to leave the warmth of Southern California where Don was winding down a dental practice.
Their daughter, a real estate agent in Utah, convinced them to take a look at the west side of Utah Lake.
Luanne Markham said her first thoughts about Utah Lake were "Ew. Chemicals. Bottom-feeder fish. Grungy." But she has been watching the changes during the four years they have lived on six lakefront acres at the south end of Saratoga Springs.
"I've always been exposed to the beach, and open water speaks to me," Luanne Markham said. "When I saw that lake and the view, I was speechless. Who wouldn't want to live here?"
AN UNATTRACTIVE FISH
The June sucker is a fish found only in Utah Lake. It isn't much to look at and is not known for being particularly tasty. Tassel-topped reeds choke the shoreline but are too thick to provide the sucker's young a place to hide from predators like white bass, and the absence of vegetation on the lake bottom, thanks to the carp, leaves the young suckers without refuge in the open water.
Mills said a state report in 1979 showed June sucker numbers were seriously in decline, and by 1986 the June sucker made the endangered species list.
Federal and state dollars are paying for initiatives to increase the numbers of June sucker and get it off the endangered list. Ridding the lake of 40 million pounds of carp to bring back the submerged aquatic vegetation is part of that process and a top priority.
Reed Harris, director of the Utah Division of Natural Resources' June Sucker Recovery Program, said $2.8 million in federal and state money has been spent so far to haul carp out of the lake. Fourth-generation commercial fisherman Bill Loy and his crews are under contract to haul carp from the lake as fast as they can.
"We need to get 5 million pounds a year out to get ahead of it," Harris said.
Mills said underwater vegetation returned quickly in test areas of the lake that were fenced off to keep the carp away. The hope is that removing the carp will both help stabilize the June sucker population and reduce the turbidity in the lake that turns the water brown.
Might the effort even make warm-and-shallow Utah Lake a place where game-fish like cutthroat trout can survive? Definitely a long shot but not out of the question, Mills and Harris agreed.
UTAH LAKE, 2030
Provo has a "Vision 2030" plan that is a community planning document looking forward another 18 years. The city is also in the process of creating a recreation master plan. How the lake factors into both will largely depend on public input, Mayor John Curtis said.
Curtis said he, as a boater, enjoys Utah Lake like it is because he has seen conditions on the lake improve, even though the lake's reputation has not. If the perception stays bad, he and his fellow boaters can keep the lake to themselves.
"Where else can you go boating with your family on the Fourth of July and have a lake this size so much to yourself?" He quickly adds, however, "The mayor part of me says 'Are you kidding? The lake should be better used.'"
Determining that use is both a political and economic proposition.
Price said helicopters work from the air to spray herbicide on the shoreline-choking phragmites, and an eight-wheeled amphibious vehicle called the Land Tamer tramples the thick reeds from the ground. Beaches in the Lindon area have already been reclaimed as officials pursue a three-year effort to rid the lake of a plant that is of no use to wildlife, forms a barrier around the lake and is off-putting to humans.
The lake, in 2030, is likely to be ringed by even more residential and commercial development. Reclaimed beaches, better looking water and more sustainable fisheries could once again attract lakeside resort development. There is a proposal to build a bridge across the lake to give more direct access between the Provo-Orem area and Saratoga Springs.
Curtis said he expects to see "at least one" bridge across the lake, and probably two, by 2040. But will environmentalists who favor a cleanup also support some level of development?
As mayor, Curtis is drawn into issues about the lake that are often controversial.
One federally driven part of the June sucker recovery program would re-route the last 1.5 miles of the Provo River as it approaches the lake and turn the final stretch into a marsh that would be habitat for the June sucker and other wildlife.
That proposal would displace about a dozen property owners whose family interest in their land goes back many generations. Mills said about half of the property owners are willing to sell but the others most definitely are not.
The mayor finds himself keeping his own feelings close to the vest as he is positioned between property-owning residents of his city and state and federal initiatives in the Provo River Delta Restoration Project.
"We're not necessarily trying to re-create what it was in the past," Price said, "but help the public understand that the lake is there, and it can be something to be proud of."
And for the new and growing communities west of the lake, "We embrace the lake and use it as an amenity for residents and others," said Saratoga Springs assistant city manager Spencer Kyle. "We are the first community, the first city in Utah County, to actually embrace the lake and develop alongside it and see it as an asset."