Utah Lake shows its colors

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For as long as I can remember, stories have been told about Utah Lake’s toxicity. My friends and I would joke about the dead fish that floated along the shore, the faint smell of rotting meat that came from the water and about how easy it would be to hide a body in the 20 feet of silt that covered the bottom. Sadly, what started as a joke has now largely come to pass.

Utah Lake is the most recent area to fall victim to algal bloom, with Lake Eerie and southern Florida experiencing blooms earlier in the year. But what exactly is an algal bloom? Known as “red tides” along coastal regions, algal bloom is caused by a dramatic increase in the algae population in a body of water. Most fresh-water blooms are the result of an increase in cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, which gives the water its distinctive coloration and pea-soup like consistency.

Now, not all blooms are necessarily harmful to the local ecology, yet harmful blooms can lead to the mass deaths of local fish and other wildlife. Suddenly, the dead fish floating in Utah Lake are a little less humorous. Now that we know what an algal bloom is, the greater question is how did this happen? To put it simply, us.

While tests are still underway to determine what may have caused the bloom in Utah Lake, researchers at Ohio Northern University and Bowling Green State University who have been examining Lake Eerie have already identified the likely culprit responsible for that outbreak. Glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup, is an herbicide produced by the ever-lovable company Monsanto. These scientists have determined that certain types of cyanobacteria are able to feed on glyphosate, which causes the massive algae population growth witnessed in algal blooms.

Here’s how this all ties together. Roundup and other herbicides are used primarily in farming, but are also used heavily for lawn-care and home gardening. For example, we want to have a lovely green lawn with no unsightly weeds, so we get some Roundup and go nuts. We then water our lawns to make sure that they will look healthy. The water mixes with the Roundup and seeps into the local water basin— flowing directly into sewer systems, irrigation canals, rivers and other pathways that lead to the lake. The cyanobacteria in Utah Lake gobble up the glyphosate and grow exponentially, leading to the lakes lovely green tint and soup-like consistency, as well as the closure of the lake and Jordan River due to toxicity.

It’s worth noting that algal blooms have and will continue to happen despite what poisons are dumped into our water systems. However, it’s also worth noting that our actions are directly responsible for many of these disasters. Is a shiny green lawn really worth compromising our local ecosystem? While quality of life has improved, humankind has gotten along just fine for thousands of years without needing to dump chemicals into our yards for aesthetic purposes. Perhaps it’s worth putting in more effort for a cleaner result. After all, if you’re going to have a garden, isn’t it worth making it an environmentally friendly one?