PROVO — What was treated as a major event in 2016 could be the new normal at Utah Lake — and officials are preparing to respond accordingly.
When the lake’s algal bloom appeared in July 2016, it kicked off a summer of advisories around the lake as it was closed and opened. Warnings and advisories were upgraded, downgraded, then upgraded again, as the bloom disappeared and reappeared. The bloom typically doesn't appear until the fall.
The algal bloom arrived even earlier last year when satellite imagery identified the bloom in June 2017.
Utah Lake was far from being the only body of water in the state to experience a bloom. Just last year, 10 bodies of water reported algal blooms, including one at Ogden’s 21st Pond and at Mantua Reservoir.
It's again approaching the time of year when early algal blooms can be expected to occur, coinciding with the time people want to begin recreating in water throughout the state. No blooms have been reported yet this year.
"There are a lot of moving parts, lots of agencies, that are involved with this,” said Ben Holcomb, coordinator of the Harmful Algal Bloom Program with Utah's Division of Water Quality. "So, a few weeks ago, we held a workshop to make sure we are all on the same page in terms of how we respond to these events, how we collect the information, how we share the information, and how we communicate with each other. So I feel like we are on better footing. We are really well prepared to respond to these events."
The species of algae in Utah Lake has the ability to produce cyanobacteria, which can be harmful to animals and humans. Symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting and allergic-like reactions from skin contact.
Though algal blooms and cyanobacteria are not new phenomenons, the state of Utah hasn't always been prepared to deal with them on a large scale — something that coordination between agencies and some extra funding from the Utah Legislature is hoping to change this time around.
Response to algal blooms is getting better every year, said Jodi Gardberg, manager of standards for the DWQ.
"But we had no money, we had no funding," Gardberg said. "So we did the best we could. We monitored water bodies that reported a bloom, and tried to get the information to local health departments."
One-time funds appropriated by the Utah Legislature this year have gone far towards that preparedness. Approximately $178,000 was appropriated for algal bloom response, most of which goes toward laboratory costs and extra field technicians, Holcomb said.
"In the past, we were operating based on kind of a lot of collective effort, everybody putting in the effort together to respond to these," Holcomb said. "Whereas this year we have at least baseline funding to cover our basic costs. And it’s been really helpful. We’ve been able to go out and collect information prior to these events occurring so we can be quicker and more prepared for when they do occur."
Having trained technicians doing the monitoring speeds up the process, Gardberg said, as does the fact that the water samples can now be tested locally by working with the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food and the Utah Public Health Laboratory.
Samples that were once sent to Florida, and took up to a week to process, can now produce testing results in a day.
Some of the funding also goes to local health departments such as the Utah County Health Department, which helps with the response to the algal blooms and determines advisory levels.
Holcomb said the state is also able to keep an eye on cyanobacteria levels via satellite imagery, as well as water quality buoys on Utah Lake, Scofield Reservoir and Deer Creek Reservoir, which are checked once or twice a month.
The Utah County Health Department is working closely with the DEQ to test and monitor the lake, but the health department is also looking at a more permanent solution to warn people about the bloom.
The Utah County Health Department plans to install permanent signs at popular access points along the lake, including photos of algal blooms and instructions on what to do if they spot one, according to Aislynn Tolman-Hill, public information officer for the Utah County Health Department.
The funds for the signs have not yet been secured.
Laminated advisories had previously been placed at the lake’s popular access points. The new, permanent, metal signs would be large and include a foldable portion that would identify if the water toxin level is at a potentially hazardous level.
“We are hoping this permanent signage would be more visible, more permanent and the metal piece would allow us to flip to that warning or closure more easily,” Tolman-Hill said.
The health department has previously advised people to not be in the water in areas where they can see the bloom and to call the Utah Poison Control Center if they are experiencing symptoms.
Moving forward into this summer, the health department will transition from putting out constant alerts about the lake to teaching people what to do if they see a bloom.
“What we are hoping to do is make it more about education so people come to know what to expect,” Tolman-Hill said.