The phragmites plant is an invasive species found on Utah Lake’s shoreline. While there are some few native phragmites species on the East Coast, the majority of phragmites stands in the country are non-native. And as invasive species go, the phragmites are particularly well adapted at overrunning native plant species and generally crowding out pristine shoreline.

Sometime during the 19th century, non-native phragmites was accidentally introduced to American waterways. Compared to other shoreline plants, phragmites are really good at taking over habitat. You probably would recognize phragmites by its fluffy seed-bearing 15 ft stalks. Phragmites is able to spread through wind-blown seed as well as root based shoots called rhizomes similar to Aspen trees. This enables the plant to spread up to 20ft per year.

And spread phragmites did. Phragmites stands exist in and dominate most shoreline habitat in the country. Utah Lake, in particular, has 75 miles of shoreline. Most of which is inaccessible.

Risks of Phragmites

Like most invasive species, phragmites presents a number of risks to both the environment it invades and the human populations around them. So when considering phragmites removal, it is important to understand just what sort of risks they pose.

Lower Lake Levels

Phragmites is an incredibly thirsty plant. Compared to other native shoreline plants, phragmites takes up more than its fair share of water. Combine this with its virulent spreading across the shoreline and you get lower lake levels. Water levels on Utah Lake are already a fragile balancing act that the addition of the phragmites makes it even harder to have acceptable lake levels.


First and foremost, phragmites pose a fire hazard. Every late summer and fall, the reeds dry out and become dry as tinder. Fire can spread rapidly through them and can quickly threaten the rest of the property they are found on.

Loss of Habitat

Utah Lake is an important staging ground for migratory seabirds crossing the United States. Because of its brackish waters and marshy wetlands, both Utah Lake and the Great Salt Lake are critical habitats. There are many protected and preserved wetlands on both lakes in order to keep this unique habitat useful to these migratory birds. However, the invasion of phragmites threatens these bird populations through devastating their necessary habitat. These sea-birds, like pelicans, are too big to nest in among the phragmites. This stymies their populations and endangers their continued existence as a species.

As well, phragmites alters shoreline hydrology by growing in tightly packed stands. This is terrible habitat for young fish including the endangered June Sucker. In order for these fish to mature they need protected habitat of loosely organized shoreline plants. When these conditions exist, these young fish are able to control insect populations by feeding on brooding bugs. However, phragmites are so tightly packed that this necessary habitat is prevented. Critical fish populations like the June Sucker then have a harder time reaching maturity. Which leads right into the next risk phragmites poses.


The increase of mosquito populations. When they grow along the lake shoreline, phragmites can stagnate water flow which is thrilling to mosquitoes but problematic for landowners. For the most part, mosquitoes are more of a nuisance than a danger, but West Nile virus-carrying mosquitoes have been found in Utah. Having a mosquito breeding ground on your land is the last thing you want.

Loss of Native Plants

One of phragmites better evolutionary adaptations is its ability to severely crowd out native plants. This can throw an otherwise healthy lake shore ecosystem off balance. Yes, there are many animals that can live in and among the phragmites, like birds, snakes, and spiders, but those animals don’t necessarily need phragmites to thrive. As Utah Lake shoreline is restored, those animals can and will nest elsewhere. And beyond the wildlife, Utah Lake is a very large, complex ecosystem. The native plants found along the shoreline are an extremely necessary part of keeping the lake healthy over the coming decades.

Loss of Accessible Shoreline

As discussed above, phragmites grows in very tight stands. Not only does this restrict shoreline access for plants and animals, but it makes it impossible for humans to access great swaths beachfront. There are only 27 official access points. If a storm came up suddenly you’d have to make it into shore quick. But phragmites makes this next to impossible. Beyond this, fishers and birders can’t access some of the best locations due to the invasion of phragmites.

Diminished Views

A more aesthetic issue phragmites brings to the table is that each reed can be 12-18 ft tall. This can ruin views of Utah Lake and those sunsets are downright magical. Plus, their leaves are razor sharp and can cut skin. This can be troublesome for bird watchers, fishers, and general explorers.

Because of these risks, the Utah Lake Commission, in partnership with other organizations like the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State lands, and Utah County make continual efforts to restore Utah Lake’s shoreline.

Lake shore Restoration

Because phragmites is such an aggressively invasive species, it requires an equally aggressive treatment to restore Utah Lake shoreline. This is done through aerial herbicidal treatment followed by giant crushers and mowers chopping up and stamping down the dead organic material for re-absorption into the ecosystem.

The herbicide used is called AquaNeat which is an herbicide specifically designed for use in aquatic systems. It works through being absorbed into the plant system through direct contact with foliage. Utah Lake shore treatment takes place late summer-early fall because this is when phragmites has those puffy blooming seed heads. During the spring/summer season, phragmites’ seeds are covered in a protective layer. Those protective layers burst open giving the phragmites their iconic hanging white tassel. When sprayed directly on those seed tassels and the rest of the plant, the herbicide is most effective. After a  few days, treated phragmites should start to die.

The plant continues to degrade through the fall and into the winter. As stated above, because phragmites spread through its roots and rhizomes, simply spraying the reeds isn’t enough. That is why during the winter months, we use Marsh Masters pulling giant weed whackers to essentially crush and mow down the dead organic material. Then, spring runoff will submerge the crushed phragmites and will facilitate the natural decay of the plant.

Due to the tenacity of phragmites, there will be a certain percentage of regrowth in treated areas. However, this is why we plant to repeat the process for three years total. That means for three years, we will be spraying and crushing phragmites on the north end of Utah Lake. In our test areas, we have found that this triple wash, rinse, repeat style has lead to a 98+% elimination of phragmites. For an invasive species as virulent as phragmites, a three-year removal process is a nothing short of miraculous.

This is all part of the continual restoration and improvement efforts on Utah Lake. All of this is made possible by the collaborative efforts and funding power of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR), Forestry, Fire & State Lands (FFSL), and Utah County public works staff, as well as the DWR Wetland Restoration Initiative grant, and Utah Department of Agriculture Invasive Species Mitigation grant.

Any further questions about phragmites treatment can be directed to us at the Utah Lake Commission. Updates on treatment will be posted on our Facebook page as well as our Twitter account.


  1. We live not too far from the lake in Saratoga springs on Parkway Ct. We have the phragmites in our backyard on Talon’s Cove Golf Course property. There is a runoff Creek that comes down the mountain through the golf course to the lake. If you’re going to get rid of the phragmites on the lake you want to also check the runoffs down to the lake to make sure you kill off those phragmites also. Otherwise the seeds will just go right back into the lake.

    • Lonnie,

      Thanks for the comment! We partner with Utah County to address the phragmites every year at Utah Lake. The county has often helped the municipalities that have inflows or outflows connected with Utah Lake. The golf course could talk with the county as well to see what help is available to treat those areas as well.

  2. Phragmite reed makes good nesting material for mason bees. Where can I go to cut some reeds?

    • Leslie,

      Thanks for commenting! Anywhere there is public access to the lake and there is phragmites, you could go cut some. However, we would ask you take care to not transport any of the seed pods with you, as phragmites is extremely pervasive and efforts are being made to eradicate it.

  3. I’m hoping you can clear up some confusion I have about phragmites. Everything I have ever learned about phragmites, including this article and other similar articles, is it is an invasive species arriving in the late 19th century. Yet at some museums, some student assignments, and a few archeological papers label Fremont Indian arrow shafts as being phragmites shafts. Is there a native phragmites or are they mislabeling the arrow shafts? If it is mislabeled what is the correct identification?

    • Hey, Tom!
      We reached out to our contact at the BYU Museum of Peoples and Cultures for more info. They confirmed that ancient arrow shafts have been found made of phragmites. They also acknowledged that there could be more than one species of phragmites in play here. Specifically to Utah Lake, there wasn’t any mention, so we assume that wherever these phragmites arrow shafts were found the plant may have either been native there, could be a native strain instead of an invasive strain, or they were already invading that long ago. At Utah Lake, the data shows that phragmites australis only arrived here in force in the last several decades. Due to its negative impact on the wildlife, habitat and recreation, we work with our partners every year on phragmites removal.

    • Wikipedia lists four types of phragmites. It states the invasive version from Europe is more aggressive in displacing native plants. The American version is far less aggressive. The European version is the one that is spreading out of control in the US and needs to be eradicated. I’ve seen the shorelines of Bear River near Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge lined with what is probably the invasive version because it is so thick and there are fewer birds along those shores.

  4. Are there any resources for landowners struggling with fragmite? We are in Box Elder County just west of the Bird Refuge and have several ponds and a slough being taken over by fragmite. We have fenced it into sections and aggressively grazing it has really helped slow the spread . However it is still a losing battle and fencing is expensive. Do you know if there are any programs to help landowners obtain and apply Aquaneat?

    • Joelle,

      Sorry to hear your facing issues with phragmites as well. This blog post was an article taken from the newsletter for the Utah Weed Supervisors Association. hence, we’d recommend you email them at to see what help is available in your area. For Utah Lake, treatment is actually handled by Utah County.

  5. I am wondering why the long term affects of using AquaNeat on the ecosystem is not being conducted. The reason for removing Phrag is because it is an invasive species but the herbicide kills more more than Phrag and the Phrag continues to return, especially on low water years. The warning label on AquaNeat says this, “Avoid contact with green stems, foliage, exposed non-woody roots, crops, fruits, desirable plants and trees. Severe destruction or plant injury could occur. Use drift management practices when applying Aqua Neat Herbicide.” The reasoning to kills Phrag is for the intention for restoring native aquatic plants, like Cattail but this pesticide is intended to kill that as well. I’m no expert but seems like dumping a large quantity of herbicide all over Utah Lake with no monitoring being done to the affects to the ecosystem is not only a waste of money and time but largely irresponsible.

    • Adam,

      Great questions! A great deal of time and effort go into shoreline restoration of Utah Lake. Years of on the ground experimentation furthered by more recent academic research conducted by USU’s Dr Kettenring have contributed to the treatment regime currently being deployed. Thanks to a talented helicopter pilot who has decades of herbicide application experience, stands of native cattail and bulrush are avoided while the invasive Phragmites is targeted. Last year, we confirmed with EPA that nothing had changed regarding use or label instructions. So far, the ecosystem is responding very favorably. The native plants biologist for Utah’s Division of FFSL recently toured a section of recently re-treated shoreline and stated that it looked healthier than he has ever seen it. As better herbicide products are developed and more sustainable treatments are vetted, we explore those options. We know for certain that when left unchecked, Phragmites destroys ecosystem by eliminating the healthy heterogeneity of vegetation. Mono cultures of Phragmites also drastically reduce wildlife habitat and safe recreational use and access on Utah Lake. Thanks for your interest in the lake, please send ideas and solutions our way, shoreline restoration work is a tricky problem and new ideas are always welcome!