Photographs of Utah Lake from 30 years ago show a lake with sandy beaches and native plants like bull rushes and cattails. Those photos would be virtually unrecognizable to someone familiar with most of Utah Lake’s shoreline today.
That’s because an invasive species of reeds called phragmites swept through, populating Utah Lake and many other water bodies throughout the state about 10 to 15 years ago, said Eric Ellis, the executive director of the Utah Lake Commission. The tall, perennial grass can grow to heights of 15 feet, and typically grows in dense thickets that displace native plants, greedily intake water from the lake and take over shorelines that become inaccessible to humans.
The state started a phragmites eradication program in 2006, focused on eliminating to the extent possible phragmites around Utah’s two largest lakes: The Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake.
But phragmites aren’t easy to eliminate. The tenacious plants can spread both by seed and by shoots from their roots, meaning even after treatments, they will come back unless treated repeatedly over and over.
“It’s just a hardy plant that’s really quick to adapt to its environment,” Ellis said. “It makes it really hard to get rid of.”
Utah Lake has approximately 8,300 acres of phragmites along it’s 75-mile shoreline, Ellis said. About 4,300 of those acres have been prioritized for treatment in the most populated areas of shoreline from Saratoga Springs down to Springville. While Ellis said it’s unlikely that phragmites are ever completely eliminated from Utah Lake, some new equipment and research may help make progress against the particularly persistent weed.
What is being done to fight them around Utah Lake?
Over the time that Utah Lake has been treated for phragmites, Ellis said techniques have changed as more research is done on the best way to get rid of the weeds. For instance, burning used to be used to get rid of the plants, before they found out that phragmites actually thrive after they’ve been burned off.
Now, large areas of phragmites are treated every fall with an herbicide called AquaNeat, sprayed on the plants by a helicopter. Then, after the first hard freeze, Utah County crews come in to smash the treated plants down to help it decompose once the lake levels rise again in the spring.
Some newly-acquired equipment called “Marsh Masters” can access far larger areas of phragmite habitat than old equipment, called land tamers, which could not access 80% of the areas in need of crushing. Several funding partners, came together to purchase two of the machines, which are being used for the first time in the 2018 to 2019 crushing cycle, according to the Utah Lake Commission’s website.
Not only can the Marsh Masters access more of the phragmites, they also have mowers on the back that mulch up the phragmites as they’re mowing, Ellis said. The latest research suggests this is the best way to allow native vegetation to come back.
“When we historically just smashed (phragmites) down with a roller, the only vegetation that could come back over that thick mat of phragmites was itself — more phragmites,” Ellis said. “So we’re excited. We’re just barely getting started with those new mowers, they just barely got attached and they’re kind of working out kinks on those, but it looks really good, and it makes that bed of biomass much thinner so it let’s bull rush and cattails and other desirable grasses come back in its place.”
A new program is also being piloted this summer, in which cows will be fenced into acres of phragmite growth in order to graze it down. This method has been used in other areas in Utah. While it doesn’t completely eradicate the weeds, it does allow for native plants to come back in its place. It’s also full of protein, and good for the cows, Ellis said.
The Utah Lake Commission works with multiple funding partners and applies for grants to help fund the phragmites elimination project. Those partners include the Department of Natural Resources, which funds close to half of the $300,000 to $500,000 spent on the project per year, Ellis said. The Department of Agriculture’s invasive species mitigation fund pays for close to the second half of funding, while Utah County uses in-kind contributions for use of staff and machinery. Other funding comes from the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.
What has been accomplished so far?
Right now, Ellis said, there aren’t necessarily many large areas that are now phragmite-free due to treatment, though there are some areas where native plants have started growing back in treated zones. The Utah Lake Commission is working on prioritizing treatment of the phragmites on areas where they have the best chance of getting other native plants to make a comeback.
Some areas that contain perfect habitat for phragmites may be nearly impossible to make progress on.
“You can treat it, smash it, treat it, smash it, and no matter what, it wants to come back,” Ellis said. “But in other areas, it’s not the perfect environment (for phragmites). It’s a better environment for other vegetation, so you knock it down once and the other vegetation comes back.”
Will Utah Lake ever be phragmite-free?
It’s unlikely there will ever be a day when phragmites are completely and totally eliminated from the state of Utah.
“It will likely be at best, switching to maintenance at some point when you kind of stay on top of things,” Ellis said. “My guess is there will be invasive vegetation around the lake and all of our lakes forever. It’s kind of the nature of weeds. They’re good at out-competing what is desirable. It’s a big job. But we do feel like we’re making headway.”
Ellis said he’s hopeful that areas of interest being focused on will see progress in phragmite elimination.
“I think with the new equipment we have now, that we will be able to see a huge difference on shoreline restoration work,” Ellis said.