PROVO — Utah Lake is like a wayward child who needs extra parental supervision.
That is where the Utah Division of Water Quality's Ryan Parker and Trevor Gruwell come in, keeping a mindful watch over the water in case another outbreak of blue-green algae crops up.
On this near windless Monday on the calm water of Utah's largest freshwater lake, the two men are on a surveillance mission.
They are slapping against the water in a sturdy Crestliner, on a hunt to determine any evidence of worsening conditions at the lake.
The two are water quality technicians, and as they near a buoy probing the water quality, they ready glass containers to collect water.
Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, can contain harmful toxins that are deadly to pets and livestock. Some of the toxins cause harmful health effects to humans if there is too much exposure.
This buoy they are approaching collects round-the-clock measurements of things like turbidity, dissolved organic matter, pH and dissolved oxygen, providing the state regulatory agency with a comprehensive view of conditions that could lead to algal outbreaks.
Parker said water samples are sent to a lab for analysis, with about a 36-hour turnaround on results.
It is a weekly trip to multiple locations across the lake once a bloom strikes in a particular area at Utah Lake.
This first buoy is 2 miles west of Vineyard. At sampling at a second buoy, they were analyzing the water 1 mile west of Provo Bay.
"We have been seeing a lot of blooms in the Provo Bay area," Parker said.
On Friday, the local and state health departments ordered Lincoln Beach and Marina closed due to a spike in cyanobacteria cell counts that was 14 times higher than results from a test a week earlier.
Provo Bay, Sandy Beach and Utah Lake State Park waters remain under a health advisory.
Officials stress the majority of the lake is free from any cyanobacteria contamination, but people should exercise caution in those areas impacted.
On Monday, several boaters were taking advantage of the temperate weather to spend a day at Utah Lake.
The state is engaged in a $1 million dollar study examining Utah Lake and its blue-green algae problem.
The proliferation of algae stems from an abundance of nutrients, especially phosphorus, which is a byproduct of waste water discharges into the lake, agricultural operations and urban runoff. It also occurs naturally.
Utah water quality regulators developed a technology-based standard limiting phosphorus in wastewater discharges that takes effect in 2020.
Others are also engaged in field research, including Brigham Young University.4 comments on this story
"We have a large citizen scientist project every couple months where people can come and collect water samples from all the main tributaries such as Provo River, Spanish Fork, the Benjamin Slough and Hobble Creek," said Ben Abbott, an ecology professor at BYU.
Abbott said the research is trying to discern how much of the contamination is natural or a byproduct of human activities.
Utah Lake, he added, is a complex system that doesn't offer easy answers to a solution.
"The road back to good ecological functioning is not totally clear yet. That is why it is important to invest in research at this point. Getting to the root of what is causing these blooms is really critical," he said.