Although it might be the year of the Great Salt Lake in the Legislature, two bills that lawmakers say will steer Utah Lake toward a cleaner future cleared a big hurdle on Friday.

Both HB240 and HB232 got a stamp of approval from the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee and will likely go before the full Senate body for consideration.

Sponsored by Rep. Brady Brammer, HB232 would create the Utah Lake Authority, a body the Pleasant Grove Republican says will be more inclusive and have more power than the current Utah Lake Commission.

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The authority would work to improve the health of the lake, while producing “economic, aesthetic, recreational, environmental, and other benefits for the state.”

Meanwhile HB240, sponsored by Rep. Kevin Stratton, R-Orem, amends the Utah Lake Restoration Act that was passed in 2018. The bill is a response to the ambitious proposal to dredge Utah Lake and build islands, made possible by the 2018 legislation and dubbed the Utah Lake Restoration Project.

Lake Restoration Solutions recently submitted its application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that details plans to dredge around 1 billion cubic yards of sediment from the lake to create 34 human-made islands. The islands would amount to 18,000 acres and 190 miles of new shoreline. The company says around half of the islands would be used for residential development, and half for wildlife and recreation.

By making Utah Lake deeper, the company says it will eliminate the toxic algal blooms and invasive species that have long plagued the lake. But local scientists, environmental groups and a growing number of Utah County municipalities have come out against the proposal.

A number of scientists recently signed onto a seven-page rebuke of the company’s application, which among other things, accuses Lake Restoration Solutions of “cherry picking” data, and claims the project could have a devastating impact on the lake’s ecosystem.

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‘Transparency and a sound process’

The Utah Lake Restoration Act created a pathway for a project like the one spearheaded by Lake Restoration Solutions. The bill established criteria that any group proposing an environmental remediation effort would have to meet before the state disposed of sovereign land.

The Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands controls the lakebed — in the case of the Utah Lake Restoration Project, the dredged material the company plans on turning into islands is owned by the state. Under the Utah Lake Restoration Act, that land would be handed over by the division.

But if HB240 makes it through the legislature, any group, including Lake Restoration Solutions, will need to jump through a few extra hoops before any land is disposed of, specifically ensuring the project is “fiscally sound” and “legally appropriate,” Stratton says.

On Tuesday, it passed the House after a 68-3 vote. And on Friday, it received unanimous approval from the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee.

The bill was also amended before it sailed through the House, and will now require the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands to specify additional criteria to include “anything that comes along appropriately in this process,” Stratton said.

“HB240 allows transparency and a sound process,” he said.

Under HB240, any remediation project will require the approval of the Utah Senate, House and governor regardless of the outcome of the National Environmental Policy Act process.

“That’s a really, really important safeguard, because even with the NEPA process going on, they may say, ‘OK, we’re fine with this project.’ But there’s a point where the state has to say ‘we’re willing to give up state sovereign lands,’” said former Provo mayoral candidate Sherrie Hall Everett during a virtual town hall hosted by Conserve Utah Valley on Thursday.

“We’ve layered all of these opportunities for this not to feel like it got snuck by us. And that to me is what accountability and transparency in government is,” she said.

Groups like Conserve Utah Valley have thrown their support behind Stratton’s bill — on Friday, many said they wished the Utah Lake Restoration Act had never been passed in the first place, but HB240 provides a needed buffer.

Lake Restoration Solutions, which had originally voiced concerns over the bill, told the Deseret News in a statement that the recent amendments are “consistent with and improves the process that was established by the legislature in 2018.”

“We appreciate that Rep. Stratton was willing to work with us on the changes reflected in the current version of the bill,” said company president Jon Benson in an email. “Most encouraging, thanks to the many discussions surrounding H.B. 240 and Rep. Brammer’s Utah Lake Authority bill, it seems that legislators are nearly unanimous in wanting to see significant improvements to Utah Lake.”

A dog is walked at Utah Lake near Saratoga Springs on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

What is the Utah Lake Authority?

Founded in 2007, the Utah Lake Commission is comprised of a number of local municipalities, Utah County, the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, four state agencies and representatives from the legislature.

But, as Brammer told lawmakers on Friday, while the commission can give recommendations, it doesn’t have much teeth. “There’s not any authority to do anything,” he said.

HB232 would establish the Utah Lake Authority, which Brammer says will have more power than the current commission. Its stated goal is to preserve water rights, oversee remediation of the lake, and increase economic and recreation opportunities.

“It’s a different governmental structure because it allows them to actually do things,” Brammer said. “The lake commission can do some things, but they’re always in a different status — they’re an interlocal agreement, without a state-level authority.”

The authority would be comprised of 15 members — an appointee from the governor’s office, a representative from the Utah House, Senate, Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity, Lehi, Saratoga Springs, Lindon, Orem, Vineyard, Provo, Spanish Fork, the Utah Valley Chamber, Utah County, the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Environmental Quality.

The bill has been met with opposition from many of the same people that support Stratton’s HB240, who initially worried the authority would be able to greenlight a project like the one proposed by Lake Restoration Solutions.

On Friday, Brammer called the island proposal “the elephant in the room,” and pointed to several amendments in the bill including one that prevents the authority from disposing of any sovereign land — that would still fall to the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

The only thing the authority could sell or dispose of are “real or personal property, not sovereign land,” he said.

Brammer also says the bill cannot create an avenue for bonding or financing large projects under the statute set by the 2018 Utah Lake Restoration Act.

Still, members of the public who showed up to Friday’s meeting weren’t swayed.

Some asked why there isn’t a Bear Lake or Great Salt Lake authority.

“Should we be managing these large ecosystems locally or at a state level? How should we be funding them?” asked Peggy Climenson, who told lawmakers “I don’t think it’s the right time and I think the bill needs work.”

Ben Abbott, associate professor of aquatic ecology at Brigham Young University, also called the Utah Lake Restoration Project the “elephant in the room” — an elephant that he worries would impact the effectiveness of the authority.

“I fear that if we make a big change in governance under the shadow of the islands ... we may not get an ideal structure because a bill that is neutral to the islands, in my opinion, is not a bill that is for Utah Lake because the islands is such a dangerous and risky proposal,” Abbot said.

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Abbott, a vocal critic of Lake Restoration Solutions, is the subject of a defamation lawsuit filed by the company that alleges he intentionally made misleading remarks on his social media and during public meetings. Abbott has since filed a counterclaim under the state’s anti-SLAPP, or strategic lawsuit against public participation, laws.

Ultimately, Brammer’s bill passed the committee after a 4-3 nod.