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The contentious debate over the future of Utah Lake heats up as developers sue critic

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Phragmites line the shore of Utah Lake near Mulberry Beach in Utah County on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. A contentious debate over the future of Utah Lake is headed to the courts.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Part of the contentious debate over the future of Utah Lake will now be settled in the courtroom after the company behind a sweeping, $6 billion-plus proposal to dredge the lake and create man-made islands is suing one of the endeavor’s most vocal critics.

In a defamation and false light suit filed on Jan. 10, Lake Restoration Solutions says Ben Abbott, associate professor of aquatic ecology at Brigham Young University, has made “many demonstrably false statements” and is behind a “misguided and wrongful campaign to turn public opinion against” the project.

The Utah Lake Restoration Project is being touted as a solution to the toxic algal blooms, invasive plants and fish, and the increasing demand for water from rapidly expanding Utah County, all contributing to the lake’s declining health.

The privately funded project would deepen the lake on average by 7 feet, and the dredged material would be used to create man-made islands, some for development, recreation and wildlife. Some form of the idea has been considered for years, but on Jan. 6, Lake Restoration Solutions filed an application for the permits needed to move forward with the project, the closest the proposal has been to reality.

A deeper lake, the company says, means a healthier lake, with cooler temperatures and less algal blooms.

But the proposal has been met with stiff opposition. Over 100 scientistsrecently penned a letter speaking out against the project, and numerous environmental groups and stakeholders signed onto a petition to amend HB272, a 2018 bill that effectively allows the state to hand over sections of the lakebed (that will then be turned into islands) if certain conditions are met.

The letter and petition identifies several concerns with the project, including the transfer of land — which activists call “the biggest government giveaway in Utah history” — and the approach to restoration that is “likely to reverse the lake’s recovery.”

But the letter and petition are not the subject of the lawsuit. Instead, attorneys for Lake Restoration Solutions say Abbott has made repeated false statements on his Twitter and Facebook accounts, during public meetings and on his own personal blog. Abbott declined to comment.

In a Nov. 28 blog post, Abbott said the company has “shady foreign funding” that “comes from Dubai.” These claims are false, the company says, and its “funding is exclusively from domestic entities and individuals.”

In 2019, the Daily Herald reported Todd Parker, who was one of the original minds behind the project but has since stepped down, said global investors were ready to fund the project. In response to the story, Jon Benson, president of Lake Restoration Solutions, emphasized funding will be domestic, telling the Deseret News in an email that “the first outside funding for Lake Restoration Solutions was in 2020, over a year and a half after the Herald article.”

Details on the project’s investors have not been made public.

Abbott has also claimed “the project has no scientists on its team,” according to court documents. “Lake Restoration has engaged and contracted with highly qualified scientists, including Ph.D.-level scientists ... those scientists and other third-party scientists and environmentalists think the project is a good idea,” the suit reads.

During the Utah Lake Summit Jeff Hartley, a spokesperson for the project, pointed to Geosyntec Consultants, who he says is advising the project.

“They have Ph.D.s and they have advanced degrees and they have credited engineers,” Hartley said, including Rudy Bonaparte, the lead engineer with a doctorate in geotechnical engineering, according to his company bio.

Also listed in the suit is Abbott’s claim that Lake Restoration Solutions “went public on the Securities and Exchange Commission last year and only managed to raise $200,000.” In an email, the company says it raised significantly more than $200,000 in 2020 from private donors, whichrequires informational filing with the SEC.

The transfer of land has been a sticking point to the project’s opponents, including Abbott, who is quoted in the suit saying it “would privatize the lakebed and cover about one-fifth of the lake in private islands.”

Again, the exact details of the project are not yet clear — Hartley said during last week’s summit that the company “can petition the Legislature to divest of some of those lands that we’ve created that don’t exist today that are islands.”

According to court documents, the lakebed itself will remain public, “and one-fifth of Utah Lake would not be covered in ‘private islands.’”

The suit also cites Abbott’s claim that he “met repeatedly with developers.” Another Herald article pictures Abbott and Parker together, but in an email Benson, the company’s president, told the Deseret News “I can’t say for sure if they met each other that night or not; Todd Parker has no position with the company today. I can tell you that none of our current team members have ever met Mr. Abbott until this week after the complaint was filed.”

Lake Restoration Solutions said the project “is at the very beginning of a lengthy environmental review process that demands the best available science be utilized, and that both data and opinion be considered from all perspectives.”

“We welcome legitimate scrutiny of our proposal and will, through the federal NEPA process, be required to answer legitimate concerns and critiques. What we cannot tolerate, and the law does not allow, is deliberate mischaracterizations and defamatory statements. Such statements have been and will be referred to outside legal counsel,” the company said.

An attempt to silence opposition, or legitimate economic loss?

During the Utah Lake Summit, host Rep. Kevin Stratton, R-Orem, alluded to what many lawmakers dub the “Utah Way” — an approach to politics that claims to set aside differences and emphasize civility.

“One of the great things is we don’t see things the same way,” Stratton told the audience. “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.”

But just a few hours before the summit, Abbott says he was notified of the lawsuit.

“I consider that to be the height of hypocrisy, where they have suggested that they want to negotiate and work together, but before Rep. Stratton’s summit, they serve Dr. Abbott with a lawsuit,” said Sam Rushforth, dean of science at Utah Valley University and a signee of the letter opposing the project.

These types of lawsuits are rare — consider the opposition to numerous other controversial projects in Utah, including the proposed gondola up Little Cottonwood Canyon, the Lake Powell Pipeline or Geneva Rock’s quarries along the Wasatch Front. All have motivated opposition groups that have at times voiced dubious claims.

“They were more common in the past in my opinion than they are now,” said Rushforth. “But the desired effect of a SLAPP suit is to silence the opposition.”

A SLAPP suit refers to a “strategic lawsuit against public participation.”

Rushforth thinks the company is suing Abbott because he isn’t tenured at BYU, and is therefore “in a greater position to be harmed than many of the rest of us. I would have welcomed being in his position because I think it’s a frivolous, stupid lawsuit.”

Lake Restoration Solutions, on the other hand, says Abbott’s statements have harmed the company “by loss of potential investment by prospective investors.” They seek at least $3 million for compensation — according to the suit, they plan to donate that to nonprofits “committed to water conservation and environmental sustainability.”