Utah Lake is the largest freshwater lake in the United States west of the Mississippi River. Covering an area of approximately 150 square miles (96,000 acre) it occupies over one-fourth of the valley floor of Utah Valley and contains about 900,000 acre feet of water. It is a remnant of pre-historic Lake Bonneville which occupied nearly one-half of today's state of Utah between approximately 750,000 and 7250 B.C. The lake receives water from four major streams and numerous smaller perennial and intermittent streams, springs, and flowing wells. The major streams feeding the lake (from north to south) are the American Fork River, Provo River, Hobble Creek, and Spanish Fork River. One river, the Jordan empties out of the lake, flowing north into the Great Salt Lake.
The lake and its associated lake plains have been of importance to man for at least several millennia. The earliest known inhabitants of the Utah Lake region, members of the desert culture of the American Indian peoples, roamed the valleys of the Great Basin from about 10,000 B.C. to A.D. 300-500. From A.D. 800 to 1600 members of the Fremont Culture occupied the area around Utah Lake, relying on fishing, hunting, and production of corn, squash, and beans. Fremont influence declined after the great drought of A.D. 1400, and by 1800 Utah Lake was used by three Indian groups: the Paiutes who mainly used the west side; the Utes who used the lake and its streams throughout the year; and the Shoshone who periodically entered Utah Valley from the north.
The first known non-Indian discovery of the lake was that of the Dominguez and Escalante expedition of 1776. Fur trappers discovered the lake in the 1820s, with Jedediah Smith, William Ashley and Etienne Provost reputed to have visited it during 1824 and 1825. John C. Fremont visited Utah Lake in 1844 as he returned from California. Mormon explorers visited the lake in 1847, and in 1849 the Mormons began using the lake. A fishing party of six men was sent to the lake by Brigham Young in January of that year, and later that spring Provo (named for Provost) became the first permanent settlement along the lake's shore.
Utah Lake has been of central importance to all of the people who have occupied the lake plains. Commercial fishing was important into the twentieth century, and recreation fishing remains significant. The lake has been used for transportation and recreation as well, but the most important use of the lake since Mormon settlement began has been for irrigation. Water from the streams entering the lake was diverted from the beginning of settlement. Disagreements between irrigation users in the Salt Lake Valley relying on the Jordan River and those in Utah Valley surfaced in the 1870s as the Salt Lake water users wanted to use Utah Lake as a reservoir to store water for late season irrigation. Because Utah Lake occupies a flat valley, erection of a dam at the outlet of the Jordan River would flood farms around the lake. The issue was resolved by the compromise of 1884 and 1895 which effectively established the level of the lake, a level that has been maintained to the present.
The lake is an important recreation resource, with the Utah Lake State Park at Provo, Saratoga resort near the inlet to the Jordan River, and several marinas providing access for boaters, fishermen, water skiers, ice skaters, hunters, and other users. The lake shores and surrounding valley floor are home to nearly 250,000 people, the only steel mill in the intermountain region (Geneva Steel), a growing electronics industry, and two institutions of higher education, Utah Valley Community College and Brigham Young University. A variety of historically important sites are associated with the communities surrounding the lake, including the old Provo Stake Tabernacle, the Lehi Roller Mills, and numerous other historical buildings.
See: "Utah Lake Monograph" Great Basin Naturalist, 5 (1981).
Richard H. Jackson