Use Willard Bay marinas at your own risk

Saturday , August 09, 2014 - 4:07 PM

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Willard Bay State Park advises visitors at the South marina that they're boating at their own risk...

WILLARD — Not wanting to close a popular waterway in the midst of summer’s most dense heat, state parks officials have kept the two marinas at the Willard Bay State Park accessible — with a warning.

Officials are recruiting hardy souls to volunteer to solve the problem, by hand, for now.

The Willard Bay water level is low enough that, late last month, warning signs were posted at both marinas advising against using the boat ramps. They carry the proviso to launch “at your own risk.”

The water level always drops and will continue to drop until the end of the irrigation season, this fall, since Willard Bay is actually a 10,000-acre, freshwater irrigation reservoir. It only appears to be part of Great Salt Lake.

Dropping water levels means rocks are cropping up — more on that later. But they are damaging propeller blades, rudders and keels at the ramps where the water these days is only 2 feet deep, particularly at the park’s South Marina, only a few miles from Ogden.

Heather Dial, staffing the entrance booth at the South Marina, was spending Friday advising boaters about the dangers of launching.

“There were lots of angry people when I gave them my spiel,” said Dial, a state parks ranger’s aide. “But they’d still go through.”

Of about 30 boaters by 3 p.m., only two turned back at her warnings. Later, one departing boat owner stopped to chastise her because his propeller was chopped up on the rocks.

“Even though I’d told him it could happen, he still complained,” Dial said.

The problem is, the state parks department can’t just walk down to the South Marina tomorrow and dredge, or even send in a backhoe.

Such mechanized repair can’t be assigned the South Marina, officials agree, as it’s prohibited by federal law below the high water mark.

Such work needs a permit signed off on by a plethora of federal agencies that have jurisdiction, such as the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which built the reservoir in the 1960s, and the Weber Basin Water Conservancy, which filled the reservoir and owns the water.

“Too many cooks in the soup,” quips Jim Morkin, 85, of the Friends of Willard Bay, an impassioned group enamored of Willard Bay.

Morkin, 85, is retired from a number of positions, including time in the Coast Guard air-sea rescue, OSHA, competition angling and other forays.

The bay’s North Marina is less of a problem because it was dredged at a cost of $300,000-plus several years ago, said Ken Paul, 71, another member of Friends of Willard Bay who is a retired weapons systems expert, most recently with Hill Air Force Base.

The North Marina work leaves the group skeptical of the parks department estimate that it would cost $3 million to dredge the South Marina, Paul said.

“I think we should be throwing out expressions to the general public that the South Marina is a boat-prop minefield,” he said.

Willard Bay State Park Director James Morgan doesn’t dispute the boat damage at the south ramps.

“A lot of people are having propeller damage and other problems because of how low the water is,” he said.

The aforementioned permit-approval process has begun for the dredging, or at least to allow a mechanized assault on the rocks, Morgan said, but there is no time frame for approval with so many hoops to jump through.

In lieu of the pending authorizations for the more extensive solution, volunteer efforts are under way to actually the rocks from the South Marina by hand.

So far, Morgan said he has arranged for groups of up to six “at-risk” teen volunteers from an alternative school in Brigham City to come to the South Marina to haul out rocks — five excursions of teens yanking rocks out by hand, most recently last week, to fill a trailer each time.

“We’ve got a lot more that can be done,” Morgan said.

With enough volunteers, he’s hopeful the rock removal can be completed this year so sand can be added to the lake bed next year.

“It was all sand at one point,” he said of the bed of the marina before the rocks became exposed.

“It’s just one of those things,” Morgan said. “As the rocks present themselves, we have to remove them.”

Morkin estimates the work Morgan has arranged so far has covered about a tenth of what needs to be done to get the rocks out.

Morkin is also recruiting Boy Scout groups and members of his Rocky Mountain Anglers fishing club for rock hauls at the South Marina coordinated through the friends group and the park office.

Paul says simply, “Something needs to be done to protect the public, and I don’t think it’s being done fast enough.”

“So far, nobody’s been injured,” adds Morkin, calling the complicated problem “a pile ... and James Morgan is trying real hard. But he’s limited politically and economically in what he can do.”

Those wishing to help haul rocks are encouraged to call Robin Watson, the state parks department volunteer coordinator in Salt Lake City, at 801-537-3445, or Willard Bay State Park at 435-734-9494.

“We will provide gloves as needed,” Morgan said. “The biggest thing is scheduling and coordination,” and with enough of either, the parks department may even be able to provide refreshments.

“We’re talking about softball-sized rocks and larger, but we’re not asking anyone to lift rocks any more than 40 pounds in size,” he said. “With that in mind, we’re recommending appropriate clothing, hat shade and sunscreen.”

Willard Bay’s rock “upthrust” problem stems back to its creation in the 1960s.

“Willard Bay is a reservoir unlike any in the world — a huge freshwater storage built on a dead sea,” Morkin said.

The reservoir site was part of Great Salt Lake until 1964, when it was separated by a 14-mile dike and “dewatered,” as the state’s waterquality.utah.gov website describes it.

For the drained site, a lake bed was created by importing the now-offending rocks and loads of sand before the Weber River was then loosed to fill it, Morkin and Morgan explained.

The “upthrust,” they said, is the result of sand settling to expose the rocks, which are also actually inching up over the decades of freezing and thawing.

The analogy is a cereal box with the smaller grains and flakes dropping to the bottom.

Contact reporter Tim Gurrister at 801-625-4238 or tgurrister@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @tgurrister.

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