Utah Lake

Utah Lake

Utah Lake, c.145 sq mi (380 sq km), N central Utah; largest freshwater lake in the state. It drains through the Jordan River to the Great Salt Lake. Utah Lake is what remains of the prehistoric Lake Bonneville. The Provo River project and the Strawberry valley project irrigate the region. Bird and waterfowl preserves are there, as is Utah Lake Park.
Utah Lake, at , is the largest natural freshwater lake in the state of Utah and a remnant of the prehistoric Lake Bonneville, which covered much of the state. It drains via the Jordan River at its north end into Lake Bonneville's largest remnant, Great Salt Lake.

Endemic to the lake are the endangered June sucker and the Utah Lake sculpin, now extinct. Although 13 species of fish are native to the lake, only the June sucker and Utah sucker remain, together constituting less than one percent of the biomass. By far the dominant species in the lake is the common carp, introduced in 1881 as an alternative to the overharvested native fish. Common carp are now estimated at 90.9% of the biomass, contributing to a decline in native fish populations by severely altering the ecosystem.


Utah Lake dominates Utah Valley in north-central Utah, with major cities such as Provo and Orem hemmed between the lake's eastern shore and the Wasatch Mountains. West of the lake are the Lake Mountains and jutting into the south portion of the lake is West Mountain, which divides Goshen Bay and Lincoln Beach. Connected to the main body of the lake are two large, shallow bays: the aforementioned Goshen Bay to the south and Provo Bay to the east, where Hobble Creek enters the lake.

Despite its large surface area, the lake is shallow; it has a maximum depth of 14 feet (4.27 m) and an average depth of about 9.4 feet (2.74 m). This shallowness allows winds to easily stir up sediments from the lake's bottom, contributing to the turbidity seen in Utah Lake's water.

There are several hot springs around the lake that are popular with local residents, such as those located near Lincoln Beach and Saratoga Springs.

Bird Island

The lake contains a small island, Bird Island, located about north of the Lincoln Beach boat ramp, near its south end. The island has a few trees and is somewhat visible from Lincoln Beach. During high-water years, the island may be completely submerged, the trees being the only indication it is there. It is a fairly popular destination among fishermen seeking walleye, white bass, and channel catfish.


Major tributaries include the Provo River, Spanish Fork, and American Fork rivers, as well as Hobble, Mill Race, and Currant creeks. Additionally, there are many hot springs and smaller creeks flowing into the lake. Utah Lake is drained by the Jordan River, which begins at the lake's north end, where a pumping station has been created to regulate its flow. It then flows north through Utah and Salt Lake counties into the southeast portion of Great Salt Lake.


Utah Lake's wetlands are an important stopover and nesting area for migratory birds. More than 220 species of birds use these wetland areas. Utah Lake Wetland Preserve is located at the south end of the lake, in and around Goshen Bay.

The rapidly growing population of Utah Valley threatens the future of Utah Lake. Various proposals to dike the lake's bays occasionally surface. Recent development along the lake's western shore has fueled a proposal to construct a causeway across the lake. To date, economic costs, environmental concerns, litigation, and public opposition have stymied these proposals.

Historically, Bonneville cutthroat trout were the predator fish in the ecosystem, and were present in large numbers; in 1864, a commercial fisherman hauled in a single net holding between 3,500 and 3,700 pounds (1,588-1,678 kg) of trout. By 1874, laws were in place to protect Bonneville cutthroats, but commercial netting was not banned until 1897. The trout population in Utah Lake was extinct by the 1920s. Today, the primary predators in the lake are the non-native walleye and white bass.

As of 2006, fishing regulations for Utah Lake released by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources protect certain large-bodied nonnative predator species in the lake, such as bass and walleye; anglers are required to release largemouth and smallmouth bass over in length, and can take only one walleye over . In an effort to control the population of white bass and walleye, the DWR places no limit on the number of white bass that can be taken, a limit of six fish on walleye (one over 20 inches), and requests anglers to harvest them from the lake.

Endangered and extinct species

Utah Lake is the home to the June sucker, a critically endangered fish, and former home to the Utah Lake sculpin, an extinct fish.

June sucker

The June sucker (Chasmistes liorus) lives naturally only in Utah Lake and the Provo River. The species was federally listed as endangered April 30, 1986. The June sucker is unique among the sucker family of fish in that it is not a bottom-feeder, but has evolved a mouth that allows it to collect zooplankton from the water. June suckers are dark gray or brownish dorsally, with a white or slightly greenish belly. They can reach a weight of 5 pounds and have a long life span of over 40 years.

June sucker were once abundant in Utah Lake, but several factors have brought the species to the brink of extinction. Some contributions to its decline include predation on its young by introduced species such as the white bass and walleye, overfishing, pollution and resulting turbidity in Utah Lake, drought, alteration of water flow, and the introduction of carp, which eat native vegetation and various floaties that provide shelter and food for June sucker.

Biologists have been rearing the June sucker in Red Butte Reservoir and releasing them into Utah Lake to help build the population. During the summer of 2005, over 8,000 June sucker were released into Utah Lake.

The June Sucker Recovery Implementation Program (JSRIP) coordinates and implements recovery actions for the June sucker.

Utah Lake sculpin

The Utah Lake sculpin (Cottus echinatus) was a species of freshwater sculpin endemic to Utah Lake. The species is believed to have disappeared during the 1930s, when a severe drought led to a rapid fall in water levels in the lake. A cold winter led to the lake freezing, resulting in the overcrowding of the remaining fish. This, along with decreased water quality from agricultural practices has been identified as the likely cause of extinction.

The Utah Lake sculpin was a benthic species (bottom dwelling), invertebrates constituting its major source of food. It was one of two lake-dwelling sculpins native to Utah (see Bear Lake sculpin).

Introduced species

At least 24 species of fish have been introduced into Utah Lake's waters, and of these, common carp (Cyprinus carpio), white bass (Morone chrysops), black bullhead (Ameriurus melas), channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus), largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides), and walleye (Sander vitreus) have been especially successful. State record catches for both channel catfish (32 lb 8 oz) and white bass (4 lb 1 oz) are from Utah Lake.


Introduced to the lake in 1881 as a source of food after native species had been depleted by overfishing, the common carp has become the dominant species in the lake and has perhaps had the most detrimental effect on the lake's ecosystem.

Carp are estimated to make up 91% of the lake's biomass, with an adult population numbering around 7.5 million. The average carp in the lake is about 5.3 pounds (2.4 kg), for a total of nearly 40 million pounds (18 143 695 kg) of carp in the lake.

Due to their habit of grubbing through bottom sediments for food, carp stir up sediments and increase the turbidity of the water. In addition, they destroy submerged vegetation that holds sediments in place and provides shelter for native fish populations. Without vegetation, winds can more easily stir up sediment from the bottom of the lake (already a problem due to the lake's shallowness), resulting in greater turbidity and less sunlight reaching the remaining vegetation. Without cover for their young, native fish such as the June sucker become easy prey for white bass, walleye, carp, and predators.

Because carp have had such an effect on the June sucker, a large part of the work done by the JSRIP is studying means of removing or reducing the carp population. The program is still studying viable methods of removing carp, such as selling them as animal feed or possibly poisoning the lake. It is hoped that removal of carp and other invasive species will restore the lake to something resembling its natural state, providing a better environment for the June sucker and other native species such as the once-abundant Bonneville cutthroat trout.

PCB advisory
On May 16, 2006 a fish consumption advisory was issued after carp in Utah Lake were found to contain more than twice the level of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) allowed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Although the advisory has been issued, toxicologist Jason Scholl from the state health department noted that the health risks from eating carp from Utah Lake are minimal, since the levels of PCBs were below the EPA screening levels for cancer causing agents, and it would require prolonged exposure to PCBs to cause harm.

The fish were being tested as part of the JSRIP's efforts to reduce and control the carp population and determine if they are safe for human or animal use. Of all the chemicals tested, which included mercury, only PCBs were found in elevated levels.

Because elevated levels of PCBs were found in carp, it is feared that other fish species in the lake may also be contaminated. This summer other types of fish will be collected and analyzed. According to the advisory, "an environmental investigation will be initiated as an effort to track down and clean up the source of PCBs, if possible."

Recreational uses

Due to its close proximity to the Provo-Orem metropolitan area, Utah Lake is a fairly popular destination for many water sports, including boating, sailing, water skiing, and fishing. The main marina for Utah Lake is located in Utah Lake State Park on the eastern shore, near the location where the Provo River empties into the lake. Other marinas are located at Saratoga Springs, American Fork, Lindon, and Lincoln Beach.

The lake was more popular historically, before declining water quality made it less attractive for recreational use. Amusement resorts operated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries at Saratoga Hot Springs in the northwest corner of the lake, and at Geneva in the northeast. Geneva (named after the owner's daughter, not the lakeside city in Switzerland) was built where the Lindon Marina is now, at the point the railroad came closest to the lake. It included a hotel, swimming pools, a dance floor, and water slides. It lent its name to nearby Geneva Steel.

Legal issues

The ownership of lands along the shoreline of Utah Lake has been in dispute between the State of Utah and farmers for many years. The bed of Utah Lake, along with other natural lakes, was granted to the state upon admission to the Union in 1896. However, due to the lack of an exact definition and significantly fluctuating lake levels, intermittently dry areas and wetlands, including all of Provo Bay, have been claimed and farmed by surrounding land owners. Several cases have come to court since 1947, with decisions going both ways and some being settled out of court. Most recently, the U.S. District Court found in favor of the State, ordering the Attorney General to delineate the 1896 shoreline using a variety of sources to solve remaining disputes.



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