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$6B Utah Lake restoration project is ‘unconstitutional,’ state report finds

SHARE $6B Utah Lake restoration project is ‘unconstitutional,’ state report finds

Joshua Larson fishes Utah Lake in Saratoga Springs on Monday, Aug. 22, 2022.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

It appears that a massive, privately funded $6 billion-plus plan to create human-made islands to improve the quality of Utah Lake has run into a major legal hurdle.

The plan, as proposed by Lake Restoration Solutions, simply isn't legal, said Jamie Barnes, the director of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, reading off a report of a review conducted by the Utah Attorney General's Office, during a Utah Legislature interim meeting last week. The report didn't go into specifics, but Barnes said the project "presents a risk" to the state of Utah, including possible permanent loss of sovereign land.

"I have been advised by our legal counsel that there are material and substantive legal issues with the proposal submitted by Lake Restoration Solutions, and that it is detrimental to the state of Utah and the public trust," she said. "The proposal is unconstitutional and it is not legally sound."

The company's plan calls for dredging the lake, deepening it by 7 feet, on average, and using the material at the bottom of the lake to create human-made islands, some of which would be used for development, recreation and wildlife.

The Utah Legislature passed a bill in the 2022 legislative session to direct the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands to review options regarding the lake, which has suffered from low water levels and more algal blooms in recent years. The Utah Division of Water Resources currently lists Utah Lake at 42% of full capacity.

Invasive carp have also plagued the lake, threatening the health and population of the native June sucker. Tens of millions of pounds of carp have been removed from the lake since 2010.

Rep. Kevin Stratton, R-Orem, who sponsored the Utah Lake bill, called the effort to improve Utah Lake a "big task" with the goal of making the lake "its best version." It's why the state was willing to entertain the idea of human-made islands.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox echoed those sentiments when he was asked about the state's legal decision during his monthly news conference a day after the committee hearing. He added that he remains a "huge proponent" of improving and preserving Utah Lake, but has never given the island project a "full-throated endorsement."

"I've said we have to look at everything, every opportunity," he said Thursday. "It's going to be very expensive and if we can find private partners that can help carry the load so taxpayers don't have to carry all that burden, we should certainly be open to that and look at it."

Boaters float along the Utah Lake by the Lindon Marina in Lindon on Monday.

Boaters float along the Utah Lake by the Lindon Marina in Lindon on Monday.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

Barnes told the Utah Legislature's Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee on Wednesday that the division does not have a position on the subject. It has been working with Lake Restoration Solutions to look "at all options" with the state's objective. The agency is expected to release a final report on solutions in the future.

She believes there is a "misconception" that Utah Lake is getting worse, even though state agencies are working on projects aimed at reversing the negative trends in recent years.

"I think, over time, we've seen Utah Lake improving," she said. "There's a lot of things currently being done on Utah Lake to improve and enhance the quality of the lake. I think that's what we need to continue to do — we need to look at all options to enhance the quality of Utah Lake and to make it a functioning ecosystem."

Sunlight is refracted on the waters of Utah Lake in Lindon on Monday.

Sunlight is refracted on the waters of Utah Lake in Lindon on Monday.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

KSL.com reached out to Lake Restoration Solutions for comment but did not receive a response by press time.

The legal finding from the state made public on Wednesday is the latest pushback to the project, which has also been criticized by activists who call it a major government giveaway. The company sued Ben Abbott, an associate professor of aquatic ecology at Brigham Young University and one of the leading opponents of the project, earlier this year for defamation. Abbott filed a counterclaim weeks later.

With the interest in preserving Utah Lake ongoing, the Utah Valley Earth Forum is hosting an online summit Tuesday evening to discuss proposals to improve the lake. The event, which starts at 7 p.m., can be streamed online on its Facebook page.