WILLARD — The Willard Spur, a wetlands ecosystem that teems with waterfowl during migration seasons, is getting more attention as Utah monitors increasingly stressed shore areas along the Great Salt Lake.
People who look out over Willard Bay Reservoir from Interstate 15 may not realize the significance of the 14,000-acre treasure just to the north and west of the bay, said Jack Ray, president of the Utah Waterfowl Association.
Willard Spur is the “Valhalla of waterfowling,” he said.
“Out there you are in the middle of a wetland wilderness that is absolutely extraordinary,” he said. “Unless you are out in these Great Salt Lake habitats, you have no idea how rich and varied and massive an amount of bird life and wildlife is out there.”
Willard Spur also abuts the southern side of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, which is managed by the federal government.
On two fronts, the state is working on measures to better manage the Willard Spur wetlands, which along with other Great Salt Lake shore areas are subject to the effects of the shrinking lake level and pollution coming from upstream sources.
A House committee Wednesday unanimously approved a bill to create the Willard Spur Waterfowl Management Area, to be supervised by the Department of Wildlife Resources.
House Bill 265’s sponsor, Rep. Casey Snider of Cache County, said it highlights the significance of the most productive wetland area along the Great Salt Lake and will help preserve duck hunting, airboating, bird watching and other public uses.
Meanwhile, the Utah Division of Water Quality has proposed to designate the area as a unique water body, according to a state report.
That would allow tailored water quality standards to safeguard “ecological attributes that need to be protected to ensure the long-term protection of the Willard Spur ecosystem,” the report said.
Since 2010, the division has been monitoring conditions in the spur, including extensive studies in 2011-13 after the $28 million Perry-Willard Wastewater Treatment Plant opened.
The plant discharges effluent into the spur.
The state allowed the plant to begin operation after rejecting a petition by a waterfowl protection group to prohibit wastewater discharges into the spur. But the state studies since then have concluded tailored standards may be needed.
In dry summers, when Willard Spur’s water volume drops to a level cutting off the area from the larger Bear River Bay, discharges from the sewage treatment plant can make up as much as 33 percent of the phosphorus nutrient load and 25 percent of its nitrogen load, according to the document.
The treatment plant “has the potential to have the most impact upon water quality” in the spur during those summer months, it said.
Erica Gaddis, Division of Water Quality director, said in an interview Thursday that Willard Spur’s water quality is “quite good” and even during relatively dry years it remains sufficient.
“It’s important for the Great Salt Lake both to have good water quality and enough water to support the ecosystem,” Gaddis said.
Because of its extensive studies of the spur, the division may use the area as a good example for developing a wetland water quality standard broadly for the state, she said.
Snider said he grew up hunting ducks on the spur and was excited to help bring about state action to preserve the area.
The Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands now manages the spur, which lacks the focus the new designation will bring, Snider said. He said one lands agency employee manages Bear Lake, Bear River and the Willard Spur.