Recently, every issue concerning Utah Lake is controversial. There is debate over what the lake used to look like, disagreement about its current health, and multi-billion-dollar proposals to literally shape the lake’s future. While much is unknown about the complex Utah Lake ecosystem, several issues are crystal clear about its present, future and past.
First, the present. Utah Lake is an oasis in the dry sea of the Great Basin. This unique lake provides critical habitat, regulates local climate and protects water and air quality for everyone in Utah Valley. Natural processes in the lake purify tons of nutrients every year that come from human activity, and the wide, shallow footprint of Utah Lake protects us from fine particulate pollution that would otherwise be blown from the dry lakebed. It is difficult to assign an exact dollar amount to these ecosystem services, but they surely provide hundreds of millions of dollars of value to Utahns every year based on similar situations such as Owens Lake near Los Angeles.
It is true that Utah Lake has serious challenges. With over half-a-million people in its watershed, the lake is under pressure from nutrient pollution and water diversions, which have caused infamous algal blooms. While these blooms only occur during a short portion of the summer, they have led many to think that the lake is a lost cause. Far from being lost, Utah Lake is a vibrant ecosystem on the road to recovery. Since the 1990s, efforts to restore the hydrology and ecology of Utah Lake have made real progress. Most invasive carp have been removed, the native June sucker are recovering and the sustaining water flow and deltas of the Provo and Spanish Fork rivers are being restored. These citizen- and state-led efforts to rehabilitate the lake are making Utah Lake cleaner and healthier every year.
Now, the future. The state Legislature considered House Bill 272, which claims to pave the way for a “comprehensive restoration of Utah Lake.” Despite this language, the proposal is not a restoration but a complete re-engineering of the lake’s hydrology and ecology. This could undermine current restoration efforts and push the convalescent Utah Lake toward ecological disaster. The proposal gives away 20,000 acres of our public lands to a private company that promises, in return, to clean up the lake by dredging the lakebed and making the water clearer.
Dredging the lake to create causeways and artificial islands could destroy the distinct hydrology and biogeochemistry that have helped protect the lake from human pressure. A deeper lake, divided into multiple basins, would quickly stratify (separate into layers due to temperature and salinity), potentially creating an anoxic dead layer and killing most animal life in the lakebed. Anoxic conditions could also trigger the release of nutrients and toxins from the sediment. Clearer water could stimulate cyanobacterial growth, the organisms responsible for the toxicity in algal blooms. From a safety perspective, the geologically complex lakebed has numerous faults and groundwater springs that could destabilize the proposed development.
Finally, the past. Utah Lake has been shallow and murky ever since Lake Bonneville drained. Some people want the lake to be something it has never been and likely can never become. Utah Lake is beautiful and valuable just the way it is. Before we fill it in, let’s take a long look at what we could lose forever. History shows that a drastic intervention of this scale almost inevitably creates more problems than it solves — the ecological law of unintended consequences.
This project could do permanent harm to Utah Lake and leave Utah taxpayers holding the bill for billions of dollars of true restoration work long after the developers have moved on to other projects. The backers of this project have shown little regard to the ecological dynamics sustaining the lake, which doesn’t bode well for their ability to deliver promised restoration.