Jake Holdaway gets emotional when he talks about Utah Lake and his ancestral ties to a place he describes as a spiritual calling, one that speaks to the very fiber of his being, embedded in his identity.
“I was raised on this property as a kid,” said the sixth-generation farmer. “It is my sanctuary.”
When there were cattle, the shoreline along the lake was lush and full of natural vegetation.
“It looked so pretty,” he said.
With the cattle and any other hoofed animals just a memory for so many years, the shoreline of Utah Lake grew into one of weeds and muck. Invasive weeds like the tall phragmites suck up precious water and crowd out anything else.
Holdaway brought back the cattle and wants to demonstrate to the variety of cities, Utah County and to other landowners that in exchange for grazing rights, an easement for public access would allow a new system of trails and city parks to benefit from all the lakeshore has to offer. And kill the obnoxious vegetation at the same time.
“It is not a beef operation. They are the lawn mowing machines.”
His plan is called the Walkara Way Project, named after Colorow Ignacio Ouray Walkara, a member of the Timpanogos Nation who took his people to the shoreline for hunting and fishing.
The project will target 1,000 acres of shoreline and involves 25 entities granting public access easements for those parks, black top trails and fencing.
“I am going to fence mine and show the cities and others what my property looks like and what their property could look like,” Holdaway said.
Last session, the Utah Legislature appropriated $4.5 million for the Walkara project to proceed.
But Holdaway’s vision for the shores of Utah Lake is not the only restoration proposal involving one of the largest freshwater lakes west of the Mississippi.
The islands plan for Utah Lake
Utah Lake’s periodic algal blooms, its problem with excess nutrients and phragmites, as well as its shallow depth are among the reasons behind an ambitious commercial/conservation proposal to take ownership of the lake bed from the state of Utah and set about on a $2.2 billion dredging effort to deepen the lake on average by 7 feet.
The Utah Lake Restoration project contemplates removing nearly 1 billion cubic yards of material from the bottom of the lake. Such an effort, according to the proposal, would require 60 dredgers working 20 hours a day for six days over eight years.
That material would then be used to create three kinds of islands: recreation, wildlife and development. Using a method approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — which would have to approve the dredging in a lengthy federal review process — the material would be put in geotubes that would then be anchored to the deepened lake bed. Those geotubes would be the base on which those islands are built.
The main development island of 10,000 acres, according to the company proposal, would have 55.8% of its land dedicated to parks, recreation and open space. The rest of the land would host multiple types of housing, commercial and retail buildings accessed via causeways that also serve as utility corridors.
All waste would be shipped off the island to an energy recovery facility, and the company said it will pay for nearly $173 million in upgrades to publicly owned water treatment plants that discharge into Utah Lake to help reduce the lake’s nutrient load.
Beyond a taxable base on the main development island expected to generate as much as $70 billion in revenue, the company said it will remove an estimated 8,000 acres of phragmites and create 12 public beaches and hundreds of campsites and cabins.
The company promises to deliver a pristine lake to serve as a recreational hub, a healthy ecosystem and thriving island community to help ease Utah County’s growing pains.
The politics of Utah Lake
Holdaway said he doesn’t know what to think about the proposal, but in its early stages it has buy-in from the Utah Legislature, which in 2018 passed HB272 that was signed into law by then-Gov. Gary Herbert.
It authorizes the state Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands — which has oversight of the lake bed — to dispose of it as compensation for the comprehensive restoration of Utah Lake if certain conditions are met.
The division has been reviewing the proposal for several years. Too many questions and uncertainty killed a legislative effort earlier this year to establish a new political entity and taxing authority called the Utah Lake Authority.
Its sponsor, Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, plans to bring it back in a new form in the next session, a move that has critics of the Utah Lake Restoration Project worried.
Brammer said the need to create the authority to have resources to manage the lake is “island agnostic,” but others believe it is a path forward for the project.
The lawmaker emphasized the Utah Lake Commission has been doing what it can to create some success stories but simply lacks the resources to be as effective as possible.
“He (Brammer) is addressing what is a real concern, but my worry is that it is a smokescreen for some damaging proposals,” said Ben Abbott, an ecosystem ecologist researcher at Brigham Young University.
“This would be the largest artificial island project in the history of mankind and is 10 times larger than anything that has been done.”
There was an artificial island created off the coast of Florida in the 1920s by the Army Corps of Engineers, and there are ongoing dredging projects in both Egypt and Hong Kong.
While they share some commonalities with what is being proposed for Utah Lake — such as dredging — they are vastly eclipsed in size by the Utah Lake Restoration Project, Abbott said.
“It is one of the things that is astounding when you look at the area they are trying to create.”
Abbott said the proposal would severely change the ecosystem of Utah Lake by reducing its surface area, reducing the amount of water loss to evaporation — which provides a source of precipitation — and installing causeways that would dissect the 150-square mile lake.
Abbott said he believes the biggest challenge facing Utah Lake is public perception, with many people apathetic about its future or the rampant misunderstanding that the lake is riddled with challenges.
He pointed to the recent success story of June sucker fish being down-listed by the federal government from endangered to threatened and what he says has been a decrease over the last three decades of the frequency of algal blooms.
Abbott emphasized lake health is improving — and there is no need to do something rushed and detrimental.
“We need to stay the course with the highly effective and long-term restoration efforts that are ongoing if we want to rehabilitate this unique and crucial ecosystem.”
Lake Restoration Solutions Chief Executive Officer Ryan Benson said the $6.4 billion development will accomplish what so many stakeholders over the years have failed to do.
“The lake really needs an intervention. That is the challenge people have had over the last 30 years is what to do with the dredged material,” Benson said.
“We are working toward a shared objective of a cleaner and clearer Utah Lake,” Benson said, adding the lake project is more about conservation than development. “A lake that provides enhanced recreational opportunities, supports a restored ecosystem, benefits the economy, and adds more water storage capacity and water supply for our drought-stricken state.”
That’s a plus, he said.
Big island, big implications
Brad Frost, chairman of the Utah Lake Commission and the mayor of American Fork, said the proposal is being watched closely by those in the water world and government.
“This has big implications for not only Utah County but Salt Lake County as well.”
He said more than 100 leading water experts in the state met in multiple working groups and came to the consensus that state agencies with a vested interest in the lake should retain primacy, such as the Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s oversight of water quality.
The commission, he added, has been working with the state’s water quality division on a $1.2 million scientific study for the last 18 months looking at the complexity of Utah Lake.
“I think we need to have the results of that study before anything is considered,” Frost said.
In October at its conference in Salt Lake City, members of the Utah League of Cities and Towns passed a resolution that while not specific to the creation of the Utah Lake Authority, said the state’s pursuit of economic development should not proceed if it is demonstrated it would negatively impair sources of water supply or water rights.
Brammer has said the Utah Lake Authority has no impact or interference on water rights, and project proponents say it would actually increase the amount of water in the lake because of its added depth.
The $6.4 billion project will be funded with private investment in exchange for the company being able to develop its islands. The main development island would provide thousands of all manner of homes — from luxury lakefront property to apartments situated around transit hubs — in addition to retail and commercial outlets.
The Utah Valley Earth Forum circulated a petition in strident opposition to the proposal and other university scientists, including researchers at Utah Valley University, say it will be impossible to accomplish because of legal and ecological reasons.
Company officials dispute that.
“We’ve brought together a team of international experts who have worked on similar projects around the world,” Benson said, adding it is poised to move forward through the federal review process.
And the Utah Lake Commission’s executive director, Eric Ellis, said there is optimism from many with vested interests in the lake, including some researchers, who say its staged phases will bring about much needed change to turn Utah Lake into the gem it deserves to be.
“We look forward to and encourage all of our partners to get involved and help this restoration project to bring this natural resource to what we all hope it would be,” Ellis said.
“My biggest concern with some of the opposition is that you get a ‘no’ right out of the gate,” he said. “If people don’t come to the table, we will never have an opportunity to address this.”
Correction: A previous version incorrectly stated Utah Lake is the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. It also stated the project would include high-rise buildings, as outlined in the company’s proposal. The company says high rises are no longer part of the plan.