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State rejects massive project to dredge Utah Lake and build islands

SHARE State rejects massive project to dredge Utah Lake and build islands
Birds land on Utah Lake near Utah Lake State Park in Provo on Jan. 13, 2022.

Birds land on Utah Lake near Utah Lake State Park in Provo on Jan. 13, 2022.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands has canceled a proposal to dredge Utah Lake and create thousands of acres of human-made islands, a controversial project aimed at improving the health of the lake that was met with strong opposition from environmental groups.

The division, which had been reviewing an application from Lake Restoration Solutions originally submitted in 2017, says it rejected the project “due to the significant constitutional issues presented that have not been overcome.”

Those issues stem from HB272, a 2018 law that authorizes the 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.

However the division, in its explanation for cancelling the application, says Lake Restoration Solutions “contemplates a disposition that would impede navigation and permanently dispose of sovereign lands to private parties, results that are in contravention of the public trust constitutionally imposed on these lands.”

The cancelation is detailed in a record of decision, which the division says is the “final step with regard to the current ... proposal.” Lake Restoration Solutions can reapply in the future, the state notes.

In a statement, Lake Restoration Solutions President Jon Benson says his company has been working “closely with the State of Utah on restoration and enhancement solutions for Utah Lake for more than five years,” pointing to HB272 and two bills passed in 2022, HB240 and HB232.

However, Benson says the company does not plan to scrap the project, telling the Deseret News Thursday’s record of decision “gives us greater clarity on the path forward.”

“Our team has been made aware of some technical concerns regarding our 2017 application. We have been engaging with the division to address the specific concerns shared,” he said. “... We remain committed to our mission of helping to restore a healthy Utah Lake that could become an incredible recreation destination for all Utahns to enjoy while ensuring a future clean water supply and creating thousands of local jobs.”

The record of decision the latest setback for the project which in August was deemed unconstitutional in a state report.

Then in October, the Army Corps of Engineers paused its review of the application at the bequest of Lake Restoration Solutions, so the company could compile supporting documents and studies, according to state documents.

The project would be one of the biggest of its kind in the country, maybe even the world, and would fundamentally alter Utah Lake and its surrounding ecosystem.

Lake Restoration Solutions’ application details plans to build at least four roads, 34 human-made islands amounting to roughly 18,000 acres, 190 miles of new shoreline and LEED-certified communities.

With a $6.5 billion-plus price tag and 15-year timeline, the project would lower Utah Lake on average by 7 feet, which the company says would cool water temperatures over time. The dredged material would also sequester nutrients to curb algae growth, which have plagued the lake for years and made it unsafe to swim in.

However the project received pushback from environmental groups who feared the plan would upend current conservation projects on the lake, potentially fail and leave a financial mess for taxpayers to clean up, or that the proposal is really just a way for developers to make money under the guise of environmental remediation.

Conserve Utah Valley, a nonprofit and prominent voice opposed to the project, called Thursday’s announcement “great news for the health and future of Utah Lake.”

“There are many wonderful restoration efforts already occurring on the lake so we can now breathe a sigh of relief and let those helpful restoration efforts continue,” the group said. “We will still be vigilant and watchful for future projects that propose ‘restoration’ that would be detrimental to the lake.”