With Utah in the midst of a historic drought and increasingly warmer temperatures, the fate of the state’s largest freshwater lake is uncertain.
For years, Utah Lake has been plagued by toxic algal blooms, invasive plants and fish and increasing demand for water from rapidly expanding Utah County.
One proposed solution has been making headlines — a multibillion-dollar dredging effort to deepen the lake on average by 7 feet. The dredged material would be used to create man-made islands, some for development, recreation and wildlife.
Dubbed the Utah Lake Restoration Project, some form of the idea has been considered for years. However on Jan. 6, Lake Restoration Solutions filed an application for the permits needed to move forward with the project, the closest the proposal has ever been to reality. A deeper lake, the company says, means a healthier lake, with cooler temperatures and less algal blooms.
The project is made possible by HB272. Passed in 2018, it authorizes the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, which has oversight over the lakebed, to dispose of it as compensation for the comprehensive restoration of Utah Lake if certain conditions are met.
Both the restoration project and the legislation are facing stiff local pushback, including the 100-plus scientists who recently signed a letter speaking out against the project, and the Utah Sierra Club chapter, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Timpanogos Nation are among the groups promoting a petition to amend HB272.
The petition says the dredging project “is almost certain to fail, leaving a huge environmental mess for Utah taxpayers to clean up.”
The divide was on display Tuesday as stakeholders met at Utah Valley University to discuss the future of the lake. Hosted by Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, the Utah Lake Summit brought together scientists, lawmakers, government officials and the public.
“One of the great things is we don’t see things the same way,” Stratton said. “I don’t look at that as a negative, I look at that as a positive. Different points of view will certainly lead to the best solution.”
Ben Abbott, associate professor of aquatic ecology at Brigham Young University, kicked off the summit with a presentation that painted a positive outlook for the lake, contrasting what some developers and government officials say.
Habitat and biodiversity are improving, invasive species like phragmites and carp are being removed, the native June sucker is rebounding, water flows have increased and the notorious toxic algal blooms show a decreasing trend, he said during his presentation.
“And then finally, we have a population that cares about Utah Lake,” Abbot concluded, calling the lake “the center of our community” and “an important part of our identity.”
Abbott has been a staunch opponent of the restoration project, and on Tuesday he drew parallels to Lake Taihu in China which, after a large dredging operation, “ended up with multiple enormous catastrophes.” He also pointed to the Great Salt Lake causeway, which split the lake in half, drastically altering its salinity levels.
The lake is resilient and doesn’t need a multibillion-dollar dredging project, Abbot said. Smaller scale restoration efforts that have been ongoing for years are proving to be successful, he told stakeholders.
The transfer of land, which the petition calls “the biggest government giveaway in Utah history,” was a sticking point for several attendees who pressed members of Lake Restorations Solutions about who will own the islands.
Jeff Hartley, a spokesperson for the project, pushed back on the assumption that the islands will be entirely privately owned.
“The lakebed is sovereign land, it will always be sovereign land,” he said.
“We can petition the Legislature to divest of some of those lands that we’ve created that don’t exist today that are islands,” Hartley said.
Exactly how much land the state would hand over is unclear. Responding to what some say is a lack of transparency, Jon Benson, president of Lake Restoration Solutions, said the public will see the comprehensive plans once it’s reviewed by the Army Corps of Engineers.
“It’s not helpful for us to hold on to it and say, ‘We can wait to give it out.’ No, we really can’t wait to get it out,” he said.
Both Benson and Hartley say activist groups and the petition accuse the project of lacking science, a label they said was unfair.
One man, who identified himself as an environmental scientist, said he’s “seen pretty pictures ... convincing pictures, but few science that goes deep enough to satisfy me as to indicate that the lake will be safe. Because we’re talking about an entire ecosystem.”
In response, Benson said the not-yet public application filed with the Army Corps of Engineers is “replete with science, data and all the research that we’ve been doing over the last couple of years.”
As part of the process dictated by the National Environmental Policy Act, the public will have the opportunity to submit public comments once the application is reviewed.