Staying Afloat: How a sailing school managed during Utah Lake’s toxic algae scares

In mid-2016, it was hard to find a local—or national—news outlet that hadn’t reported on the toxic algae problem at Utah Lake. The 150-square-mile lake was plagued by bright blue-green, soupy textured algae that caused more than 125 people to call the Utah Poison Control Center with complaints of headaches, vomiting and rashes. Because of this—and further water testing that deemed the lake unsafe for recreating—Utah Lake was closed for a short time in July 2016.

The threat, though not as severe, popped up again in mid-2017 when another algal bloom began to grow in the lake. Even though the lake wasn’t shut down this year, one business, The Bonneville School of Sailing & Seamanship, has had to fight back against the perception that the lake is off-limits to recreation.

Taking a hit

Todd and Louise Frye, owners of the Bonneville School of Sailing & Seamanship at Utah Lake, admit that 2016 was a rough year for business.

“We almost didn’t survive last year,” Louise says. “We did really well in 2015, and then last year with the algae bloom and media coverage of it, we had people calling us even into this spring thinking the lake was still closed even though it was only closed for two weeks last summer.”

When the lake closed, Louise says they were completely caught off guard. “We went out that morning and they had shut the lake down,” she says. “It was a surprise. Everyone was taken aback. We had to call up people we had scheduled. There were cables across all the ramps with signs saying the lake was closed. Our business didn’t go anywhere after that.”

The sailing school took a major hit, losing nearly four months of business from July until October. The Fryes did do some sailing at Jordanelle Reservoir in September, but the driving distance, along with new fees and added special use permits, prevented them from staying there longer. “We’re glad we could sail there, otherwise we would have been in more dire straits,” Todd says.

The sailing school had been increasing its number of students each year until 2016, and now they’re trying to get back to where they left off, Louise says. “We took out 27 groups of students in 2015, and in 2016 we only took out seven groups,” she says. “That’s pretty significant. So far this year, we’re up to 23 groups of students.” In comparison, during their first-ever sailing season in 2007, the Fryes taught sailing lessons to eight people total.

“Last year was a significant dip and we’re climbing back up above that,” Todd says. “Hopefully we’ll be able to continue that.”

Changing a perception

Although 2016 was a rough year for business, Todd says in 2017 people were more willing to sail on the lake, although business did slow down for a bit after news reports of the algae returning began. However, while in 2016 the lake did test positive for toxic algae, this year the algae weren’t as widespread and tests did not come back positive.

One way the Fryes have tried to spread the news that Utah Lake isn’t toxic is through their weekly newsletter and their Facebook page. “We report if there are sightings of algae and we also post on Facebook if there are sightings. We use the internet to give real-time reporting from inside a sail boat looking out,” Todd says. “When we take students out, I film them and just ask them point blank, with no warning, if they see any algae, and then we’ll post the video on Facebook. It’s not scientific, but it helps.”

Louise adds that one of the best ways they’ve found to change the perception of the lake is to take people out and then let them spread the word after they’ve been out about how beautiful it is. “I’m sure their friends ask, ‘Why would you go out there? The algae is going to kill you,” she says. “But they say, ‘All I saw was a beautiful sunset.’”

Todd admits many people have had questions about the algae bloom this year, but when they ask, he’s been able to tell them he’s been out on the lake and hasn’t seen any algae blooms.

“That’s not to say Utah Lake doesn’t have any floating algae, but in past years before there was all this concern, I sailed through bright green, thick algae and never heard of any report of toxins or dangerous conditions,” he says. “It was only since the media got a hold of this that everything got kind of hyped.”

The Fryes have also picked up a couple of additional sailing gigs. While they mainly teach sailing at Utah Lake, they also teach the basics of chartering with catamarans in places like Catalina Island. “A lot of people are interested in taking their families to the Caribbean, so we did a couple of extra sailing trips in November and March [to compensate],” Todd says.

Changing course

Todd says once a bad perception starts to sink in, it takes a whole lot of good to turn it around, and closing the lake last summer was obviously detrimental to the perception of the lake. However, ongoing efforts—some that started years before the toxic algae concerns in 2016—have been making the lake a better place for recreation. For example, more than 26 million pounds of carp have been removed from the water, a step that has made the water much cleaner and clearer, says Louise.

In addition, a dredging project is scheduled at Utah Lake State Park that will add a couple more feet of depth inside the inner marina and main channel, as well as remove all navigation hazards. An estimated start date on that project is unknown, but it should be completed by mid-2018. “Hopefully they’ll dredge Utah Lake State Park this year, because that will help our business quite a bit,” Louise says.

The Fryes also present sailing seminars during the winter in their off-season. The free events are usually held at the Utah Lake State Park Visitor’s Center and usually have presenters from organizations like the Utah Lake Commission or the Division of Water Quality. This winter, the Fryes plan on hosting a seminar about algae itself so the public can understand it better.

“We see a lot of businesses that fail in the first few years, and it’s taken us a long time to be successful,” Louise says. “People didn’t expect a sailing school on Utah Lake, but now we’re in our 11th year of business and we’re here to stay. It’s still gorgeous out there on the water. It’s peaceful and the sailing has been really great this year.”