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Health, Science & Environment

Utah Lake’s June Sucker is threatened and this project hopes to put its house back in order

Restore-june-sucker-5, May 2022
Ivana Martinez
/
KUER
A few touring the Provo River Delta Restoration Project play on the shore of Utah Lake, exploring the freshwater lake.

A group of students fidgets under the hot sun as they stand near the banks of Utah Lake and the Provo River Delta Restoration Project.

They are listening to Mark Holden, executive director of the Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission, explain the work going on at the site.

Surrounded by mounds of dirt and heavy equipment, he holds up a plastic fish.

“Can anyone tell me what they think this fish is?”

The kids struggle to come up with the right answer. He tells them it’s the once endangered, and now “threatened” June Sucker.

The area, he explained, was once home to a nutrient-based delta that was a natural habitat for the June Sucker. According to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Utah Lake is one of the only places where the fish is found.

When settlers arrived in the area years ago they built a dike that cut off the connection between the open lake, the marshland and wetland environments.

“Sometimes in life, you get a do-over, right,” he said. “You get a second chance at something. Sometimes you don't, but when you do, count it as a blessing. And that's kind of how we view this project.”

In the past, most of the tributaries on the east side of the lake would have had June Sucker spawning in them but over time, as the valley has developed and most of the water was taken out of the channel it’s failed to survive. That’s due to a lack of habitat that allows the fish to hide from predators and develop.

“The June Sucker, probably more than anything nowadays, is a barometer for the health of Utah Lake and its environment,” he said.

To save them, a majority of the flow of the lower Provo River will be diverted out of the channel and into the constructed system of braided channels and wetlands before flowing into Utah Lake.

“It's the place where those small larval fish, as they drift down with the river current, will end up in an environment that is conducive for them to grow and survive,” he said.

Paula Trater, a biological technician for the Utah Reclamation Mitigation & Conservation Commission, has been working with some local high school students to plant willows and extract weeds in the area. She said most of the kids have never gotten to interact with nature like this.

“We are all part of this. It's not just, ‘Oh, there's a lake over there, there's a river here.’ We're in the whole system and everything is related to each other,” she said. “So, doing these trips with young kids, just getting in the dirt and smelling the earth. It just seems to me like a lot of kids would be doing that on their own if they had the opportunity.”

Trater said education is a big component of these kinds of projects and it helps them better understand water issues.

“I think it takes a while to soak in [for the kids], like when that voice said, ‘Oh, yeah, you need hiding places,’” she said. “You know, nature is not just this neat, tidy thing. You can't put a river into a ditch and think it's still going to function like what we did with the old river. We've made so many mistakes in the past because we didn't value the complexity of ecosystems. And that's exactly what I hope [they’re] learning.”

The restoration project, scheduled to finish in 2024, will also include recreation areas including trails, trailhead parking areas and restrooms.

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