Dredging up the past

The West has a troubled history with lakes, development and loss. Our newest dilemma? The largest human-made island project in history.

A gravel path stretches out south from the Lindon Marina, tracing a wobbly line along the eastern shore of Utah Lake. Calm waters reflect the saw-toothed silhouettes of the Wasatch Range, framed by rust-colored reeds and the feeling that — even though you are very much in the middle of a valley filled with ribbons of highways, dense housing and hundreds of thousands of people — you’re among nature.

In the coming decades, this serene place could be disrupted by the din of one of the largest development projects in Utah history. If Lake Restorations Solutions, a Utah-based business, has its way, 60 dredgers could soon be digging into the lake, scooping up enough mud to fill 300,000 Olympic swimming pools. According to an application received by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers earlier this year, this lakebed mud would then be chiseled into artificial islands, which would cover one-fifth of Utah Lake’s surface. A sprawling subdivision connected by roadways and bridges would rise as hundreds of thousands of people move into newly built homes.

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Lake Restoration Solutions says this radical overhaul could cure the lake of a bad case of algal blooms, turn its water from turbid to pristine and improve its storage capacity — an arresting proposition in a fast-growing state in the throes of a megadrought. On top of all that, the company posits that the real estate opportunities would provide a private funding mechanism and take some of the pressure off a tense housing market. 

But many, including Jacob Holdaway, a shoreline landowner conducting a wetland restoration project on his property, are calling the project a smoke and mirrors operation that would leave the state worse than it found it. “I think it’s the dumbest idea,” Holdaway says.

Jacob Holdaway, a fourth-generation Utahn, has been working to create a public park on the shores of Utah Lake for more than four years, dubbed the “Walkara Way” project — after the Timpanogos tribal leader. now, Holdaway’s work is on hold amid the Utah restoration solutions proposal. | Mark Owens for the Deseret News

 A number of lake scientists and civil engineers are expressing similar doubts, albeit veiled in more diplomatic terms. This enterprise, they caution, could cause irreparable harm to Utah Lake. Dredging it could rip apart its ecological fabric and have catastrophic effects downstream. Constructing a new city on the lake could lead to more pollution entering the water. And new residents could find themselves at the mercy of punishing floods or constant drought. “When you’re creating a system with so many weak links, it doesn’t take much to create a big disaster,” says Rajagopalan Balaji, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder. 

Now, debates over the proposal have reached a breaking point. Signs reading “Don’t pave Utah Lake” have popped up on the lakeshore as environmental groups and local scientists mobilize against the project, calling it out as a land grab cloaked in a salesman’s pitch. Meanwhile, Lake Restoration Solutions and investors have squared off against the project’s opponents in press conferences and in editorials, and the company has gone so far as to sue one of its most vocal critics, prompting accusations it is willing to bulldoze its way through to a time when you can drive to lunch in the middle of Utah Lake.   

In many ways, the fight over the future of development here has become the latest episode in a long history of disputed commercial projects, fraught restoration efforts and disputed water management projects in Utah and in the West at large. At its heart is a fundamental question, one that punctuates much of the past and future: What does the beneficial use of our natural resources really look like in 2022 and beyond?

Jacob Holdaway’s great-great-great-grandfather, Shadrach, was only 26 when he made his way to present-day Utah. A stern-looking man with pursed lips, he’d served in the Mormon Battalion during the Mexican-American War and, while based in San Diego, struck gold at Sutter’s Mill. He and his wife bought equipment in St. Louis for a woolen mill and, sometime in the 1850s, set up their own in Provo. 

The Holdaways may have called themselves pioneers, but they were really newcomers. The lakeshore where they grazed cattle bore the invisible footsteps of the Fremont people and of the Shoshone, Paiute and Goshute who came after them. In the early 19th century, as many as 70,000 Timpanogos and associated Indigenous people lived by Utah Lake, which is why the 11,752-foot mountain that presides over the lake bears their name today. When Brigham Young and his Latter-day Saint followers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, it was the Native Americans who allowed them to settle and share the land and lake. 

The pioneers found a lake brimming with wildlife, including 13 native fish species. Among them was the June sucker, a fish that saved them from starvation when crops failed in the mid-1850s. But the lake would provide more than just sustenance. 

Developers, realizing the lake’s potential as a tourist destination, rushed to build bathhouses, dance pavilions and even a racetrack on the shore. In newspaper ads, they beckoned vacationers with the promise of “Pure lake breezes. Boating! Bonfires. BATHING!” 

But in the following decades, the rapid development of cities on the shore — Spanish Fork, Springville, Orem and Provo — created new sources of pollution. Sewage from wastewater plants and chemical-filled runoff from nearby farms washed into the lake, adding more phosphorus and nitrogen, both compounds that are already naturally present in the water. The excess gasses were gobbled up by algae, spurring large, toxic blooms. Phragmites, an invasive species of tall reed grasses, sprouted on the wetlands surrounding Utah Lake, stifling native species. Carp, which a fish commissioner had introduced to the lake in the 1880s, became the dominant animal species, altering its ecosystem and threatening the June sucker’s existence. Utah Lake didn’t really look like Utah Lake anymore.

The future of Utah Lake, as envisioned by lake restoration solutions. white lines indicate connecting roads, causeways and bridges to human-made islands, which would eventually cover one-fifth of the surface area of the lake. | Lake Restoration Solutions

In the collective psyche, it became a stinky, algae-filled mess best to be avoided. From 2010 to 2017, the number of annual visitors dropped from about 300,000 to slightly above 100,000, according to state figures. Dramatic pictures of Utah Lake suffocating under a green layer of algae in 2016 captured the attention of national media, prompting state legislators to adopt a resolution urging restoration. Utah, it seemed, was craving radical solutions.   

In 2017, Lake Restoration Solutions, a company led by two Utah entrepreneurs, came up with a pitch: fixing Utah Lake by dredging its lakebed, where nutrients bond with sediment. Removing this muck, the thinking went, would be akin to removing a tumor. But this seemingly simple fix would require a historic display of engineering power. 

Deepening the lake by an average of seven feet, as Lake Restoration Solutions suggested, would require moving nearly one billion cubic yards of sediment. This initial phase would take up to 15 years and cost an estimated $2 billion, making it one of the most expensive ecological restoration projects in American history. But it would be worth it, the company says. The dredging, combined with upgrades to wastewater treatment plants and the installation of biofilters to treat the lake water, would create “a vibrant crown jewel of waterfront living and outdoor recreation,” Lake Restoration Solutions wrote in a brochure

What does the future hold for Utah Lake development, ecosystem?

But there will be myriad benefits other than environmental ones, the company claims. It argues that adding new units to the housing inventory would go a long way toward loosening up a cramped market. As of March, the median sales price for a home in Utah County, where Utah Lake is located, was $535,000 — a 31.5 percent increase from the same period last year, according to data from the Utah Association of Realtors. 

In the coming decades, developers will have to play catch-up with a booming population: The Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah projected that Utah County could add an extra one million residents by 2065. “There’s an affordability problem on the Wasatch Front,” says Jon Benson, Lake Restoration Solutions’ chief operating officer. Developing islands “is a tool to help pay for everything, but it’s also a benefit to have additional housing.”

Jon Benson, Chief Operating Officer of Lake Restoration Solutions, believes that the islands development project on Utah Lake could help ease Utah’s housing and water issues. | Mark Owens for the Deseret News

Additionally, dredging Utah Lake could increase its water storage capacity by 400,000 acre-feet and turn the shallow lake into a much-needed reservoir, Benson says. Utah hasn’t built a reservoir since 1992, and the Utah Division of Water Resources has said changing weather patterns mean it’s expecting to receive new requests to investigate potential reservoir sites.

State legislators, won over, passed a bill authorizing the transfer of the lakebed in 2018 — under state jurisdiction — to private entities in exchange for restoration services. The artificial island proposal, it seemed, was a shoo-in, and moved along relatively undisputed for three  years. In December 2021, the company submitted an application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for review, which is currently being processed. 

But as new details have emerged about the proposal, a chorus of voices has started questioning its environmental cost and feasibility. More than 100 scientists and experts penned a letter denouncing what they described as the company officials’ disregard for the lake’s environmental history, their departure from traditional principles and methods of ecological restoration and their inadequate expertise. 

Even in the most optimistic scenario, some experts say, Lake Restoration Solutions faces massive environmental and technical challenges. In theory, deepening the lake could decrease water temperatures and help preserve habitat, says Kevin Rose, an associate professor of freshwater ecology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. But this could also make it harder for the wind to push water around, resulting in less oxygen circulating in the lake. This, Rose says, could actually kill aquatic life and turbocharge chemical reactions that produce phosphorus — one of the very nutrients the Lake Restoration Solutions project is seeking to eliminate.

Water and development has always been a contentious issue in the west. in the mid-’80s, Utah taxpayers funded the $60 million pumps installed on The Great Salt Lake to ease flooding. the pumps have sat idle since 1989, and still cost $10,000 annually to maintain.
Water and development has always been a contentious issue in the west. in the mid-’80s, Utah taxpayers funded the $60 million pumps installed on The Great Salt Lake to ease flooding. the pumps have sat idle since 1989, and still cost $10,000 annually to maintain.

Disturbing the lakebed could also “activate” nutrients trapped in it and push the lake into overdrive, with detrimental consequences for its ecology, according to Aris Georgakakos, the director of the Georgia Water Resources Institute at Georgia Tech. This means that for however long it takes to dredge, “water quality is going to be significantly worse,” says Gustavious Williams, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at BYU. 

But even if the dredging does end up having positive effects, they may be quickly negated by planned urban development. The proposal calls for sculpting dredged mud into 18,000 acres of artificial islands connected to the shore by bridges and causeways, which would bring the project’s total cost to $14 billion on the low end, as estimated by Williams and the Army Corps of Engineers, putting it on a financial par with plans to build smart cities in Southeast Asia and artificial islands off the coast of Dubai. Lake Restoration Solutions puts the total budget at $6.4 billion and says the estimate was based on “many months-long analyses that involved leading project professionals with experience implementing multi-billion-dollar projects” and that “the budget will continue to be refined.” Regardless, building this mammoth infrastructure would require gas-guzzling barges to ferry equipment and construction materials across Utah Lake. “This will put so much pollution into the lake,” Balaji says. 

Then, there’s the issue of managing a sprawling subdivision built on water. Hundreds of thousands of residents would generate large amounts of wastewater and pollution, including pesticides and nutrients applied to their lawns and petroleum spills from their boats and cars, says Upmanu Lall, the director of the Columbia Water Center at Columbia University. “Just comparing this with the past population of Provo-Orem-American Fork and what they loaded into the lake, my fundamental question is: How is that going to be handled?” 

Because the level of Utah Lake fluctuates, the advent of a new wet period could mean floods and submerged homes, much like what happened in the Great Salt Lake in the 1980s, says Lall, a former professor of civil engineering at Utah State University. “The Utah Lake islands may spend years underwater.” 

But the pointed criticism hasn’t deterred Lake Restoration Solutions. The company hopes to raise at least $6.5 billion in funding for the project, including through debt securities provided by Citigroup and a federal loan of about $900 million, and says it has already secured $25 million in private investment commitments. It has hired Geosyntec Consultants, a Florida-based consulting and engineering firm, to navigate the permitting process and oversee the collection of samples in the lake later this year. “This could be a turning point for Utah,” says Benson.

With public criticism casting new doubts on the proposal, it’s unclear whether lawmakers will move to authorize it. In March, the Legislature passed a bill adding new legal and financial hoops for the company to jump through, but also another bill (HB232) that critics contend is designed to provide Lake Restoration Solutions with a back door to lead the project to completion. Even if the state greenlights the project, it will still have to be approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to move forward, a process that could take years. 

Company officials insist that if the project is found not to be viable, they will gladly move on. “What would be the point of developing the islands and putting homes on it, if they’re just going to be surrounded by cesspools of algal blooms?” asks Robert Annear, an engineer at Geosyntec involved in the project. 

If it goes through, it won’t mark the first time a Western state has decided to press ahead with a controversial plan to alter natural resources. In the late 1980s, Utah disbursed $60 million to build three massive pumps to siphon water out of the flooded Great Salt Lake and regulate water levels for the long term. But since, drought and overuse has lowered lake levels and the machines have since remained idle. A railway crossing the same lake from east to west was intended to allow a transcontinental route to bypass the steep Promontory Mountains. But an unforeseen consequence of the design has made the north arm of the Great Salt Lake much saltier than the south arm, making that half less hospitable to certain organisms vital for local industry, according to research published in the PLoS One scientific journal in 2015. Many have called for the Glen Canyon Dam, one of the most contested public infrastructure projects in the West, to be decommissioned amid a historic drought. If Lake Powell dries up, thousands of tons of radioactive waste contained in silt at the bottom could be exposed, blown away by the wind and potentially pose a threat to human health, some scientists say.

Whatever damages past developments may have done to the environment and taxpayers, the fact remains that each of these publicly funded ventures sought to bring benefits to a large swath of the population, says Balaji, who has spent nearly two decades studying the Colorado River. But in the case of the island project, revenue generated by new developments would go to Utah County. Transforming the lake might attract some tourism dollars, but “what tourists would come to see half a million people having houses in the lake?” Lake Restoration Solutions says that less than 10 percent of the new land would be turned into estuaries and recreation islands, but this may not be feasible since this could mean exposing the public to contaminated sediments, according to Lall. 

There is always the chance that once Lake Restoration Solutions and developers have made a substantial profit, taxpayers could find themselves on the hook for cleaning up an epic environmental disaster, Balaji says. “What’s the plan for the next 20-25 years?” he asks. 

BYU professor pushes back on allegations of defamation from Utah Lake developers

It’s not reassuring that the company has disregarded these questions and shunned criticisms. Earlier this year, it sued Ben Abbott, an assistant professor of ecosystem ecology at BYU, for $3 million, accusing him of spreading misinformation about the proposal through public comments. So, Abbott countersued in February under Utah’s anti-SLAPP law, which protects defedants from lawsuits they believe were filed in retaliation for participating in a public debate. In June, his lawyers filed a motion to dismiss Lake Restoration Solutions’ lawsuit against him. “This is not a battle about science,” says Abbott. “It’s a battle about politics and law and money.”

Ben Abbott, an Assistant Professor of Ecosystem Ecology at BYU, is currently facing a legal battle with Utah Restoration Solutions, which sued him for $3 million after he spoke out against the islands proposal. | Mark Owens for the Deseret News

 When I asked Benson whether he thought bringing a lawsuit against Abbott would help him gain the support of the scientific community, he paused. “I don’t know,” he finally said. He added that he could point to independent scientists who supported the project, but he cautioned that they were “pretty shy to talk to reporters” in “today’s environment,” choosing to not acknowledge the role his own company has played in shaping this very environment. 

Now, word of the lawsuit against Abbott has some scientists thinking twice before commenting on the project, even from beyond Utah’s borders. When I reached out to Hilary Dugan, a biologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she declined to comment on Utah Lake, referencing the lawsuit. “Not sure I necessarily want to wade into those waters,” she said. 

In Abbott’s view, the fact that the project has made it this far into the approval process can’t be solely explained by lawmakers’ support or the company’s aggressive push. Rather, he blames Utahns’ disregard for Utah Lake and a widespread misconception that it’s in its death throes. One key element in Lake Restoration Solutions’ proposal is the argument that the project could “turn back the clock on 150 years of lake ecosystem degradation.” 

But scientific evidence shows that the lake’s water quality was never as clear as company officials say it once was, Abbott says. Swimmers bathing in Utah Lake in the 1880s would have done so in cloudy waters. That’s because it naturally belongs to a category of lakes known as eutrophic, characterized by turbid water and a high presence of nutrients — here, phosphorus eroding from rocks in the shallow lake.   

This isn’t to say all nutrients are good for the lake, or that the lake is in mint condition as of now. It’s still unclear how many nutrients are too many nutrients for Utah Lake, and where that tipping point is, says Eric Ellis, the executive director of the Utah Lake Commission. To try and answer this question, his agency has been conducting intensive research into the lake’s water quality.

Utah Lake is the state’s largest freshwater lake, stretching out for 24 miles across Utah valley. “is this not a treasure that everyone would want?” asks Jacob Holdaway. | Mark Owens for the Deseret News

In parallel to these efforts, the state has been funding a plethora of restoration projects to rehabilitate Utah Lake. The Utah Division of Water Quality subsidizes programs that encourage farmers to use enhanced sprinklers that reduce the amount of water used for irrigation, and, as a result, toxic runoff, Ellis says. It has been using the state’s funds to assist with upgrades to wastewater treatment plants in Utah County. If the division finds that further reductions in nutrient-loaded discharges are warranted to reduce algal blooms, it could incentivize more stringent regulatory practices, Ellis says, although they wouldn’t kick in until 2030. Recently, a multiagency effort to remove over 30 million pounds of carp fish from the lake has brought back the endangered June sucker. In the winter, specialized tractors now trample down the phragmites smothering the wetlands, which has reduced their reach by about 70 percent, breathing new life into stifled habitats. 

The lake has been on the mend. Algal blooms have decreased in size and last for shorter periods of time as a result, Abbott says. When the weather permits, boaters sail from the Lindon Marina near Provo and take to the lake on 30-foot O’Day sailboats and Catalina yachts. 

In a few decades, they might have to zigzag between islands and sail under bridges. That’s a future that in many ways looks like the past — one where humans tamper with nature, at the risk of opening Pandora’s box of unintended consequences. Or they could glide unhampered across the lake, the wind meeting no obstacles in its way. This is a future of unglamorous but proven solutions to complex problems, environmentalists say. “This critical and symbolic body of water deserves the very best of environmental science,” says Craig Christensen, the executive director of Conserve Utah Valley, a nonprofit that opposes the Utah Lake Restoration Project, “not a callused reengineering of a very delicate ecosystem.”

Mark Owens for the Deseret News

This story appears in the July/August issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.