Utah Lake has long been the subject of animated debates between locals, with topics from recreation to conservation to misinformation about the ecosystem. Now these conversations are making their way to the front page, as a new proposal forces the hand of the state legislature.
In 2018, House Bill 272, also known as the “Utah Lake Amendments,” was passed to create an avenue to sell the public lands in and around Utah Lake to private developers with a caveat: the sale should only be made for restoration purposes. HB 272 states, “there is not a reasonable public funding source to undertake the comprehensive solutions needed to restore Utah Lake,” but that restoration is in the best interest of the state.
Materializing the intention to relinquish sovereign lands, the bill states that the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands “may dispose of appropriately available state land in and around Utah Lake as compensation for the comprehensive restoration of Utah Lake under a restoration proposal,” provided that the proposal meets several criteria.
Many of the challenges that have inspired this push for restoration projects around Utah Lake stem from environmental challenges the ecosystem has faced in the past. Some of the larger challenges include wastewater disposal which discharges in excess new nutrients and contributes to toxic algal blooms, industrial waste disposal that leeches harmful trace metals which impact soil health, invasive species such as the wetland reed Phragmites and the bottom-feeding fish Carp, and pervasive misinformation about the lake itself. These challenges are outlined in both the restoration proposal, as well as the expert letter and other linked sources.
A proposal included in many conversations about this bill involves a company called Lake Restoration Solutions. It released a proposal in January of 2018 with a plan that entails dredging the lake bed and using the materials to create 20,000 acres of islands for recreation and “lakefront living for hundreds of thousands of Utahns,” according to their Utah Lake Restoration Project plan.
The proposal includes plans that will likely be in development for 25 years. In addition to being an ambitious real estate development feat, LRS claims that it is “a comprehensive plan for restoring Utah Lake and the surrounding ecosystem,” citing plans to remove several invasive species and provide water storage with a deeper lake bed.
The problems that experts see with this proposal are both numerous and multi-faceted. Dr. Ben Abbott, an aquatic ecologist at Brigham Young University, is among the community experts advocating in defense of this unique ecosystem.
“After interacting with [LRS] for years, I have major doubts about their intentions and methods,” wrote Abbott in a recent blog post titled “Seven problems with the Utah Lake islands proposal.” While there are literally hundreds of ecological, financial, and legal problems with their proposal, I’ve summarized seven of my main concerns.” Those concerns include questionable presumptions about the lake, habitat destruction, economic and legal feasibility, unknown funding sources, and a lack of scientific expertise on the consulting team, which he describes as “one of the strangest and most troubling aspects of this proposal.”
In a correspondence to mobilize community members, Abbott stated that the LRS proposal “is a subsidized real estate development that would irreparably harm the lake and leave the people of Utah with an enormous environmental mess.” In December he reached out to other local experts, from scientists to environmental lawyers to business owners, asking for feedback on the proposal and solidarity in an expert letter to send to the state legislature.
The expert letter shows “complete consensus in the expert community that this is not a viable development let alone a legitimate restoration project,” receiving over 100 signatures in the span of a week.
A final controversy on the Utah Lake islands proposal is the request for government aid, which is sourced from tax-payer dollars: $10 million have already been pledged. This amount pales in comparison to the $893 million total the proposal is seeking in federal financing. For more information on this aspect, see this story published last month by The Salt Lake Tribune.
Reflecting on the Utah Lake islands proposal, Mary Jackson, a sophomore studying animation and game design, stated, “It’s ridiculous … we want to help restore this lake by destroying it? That doesn’t seem like it’s restoring anything. That seems like it’s kind of self-gratifying.” She added an element of suspicion, noting, “It’s like they’re trying to be sneaky about building something that’s going to make them money.”
When asked about alternative restoration methods that she would be more interested in seeing as a resident of Utah County, Jackson replied, “I would be interested in [seeing] restoration that takes humans away from the Lake instead of having more development in the Lake.”
The future of the Lake is far from bleak–while there are environmental challenges the ecosystem is facing, many conservation efforts have been making significant progress. These efforts have been dismissed by LRS, claiming that the Lake “continues to degrade.” This claim has been disputed by many experts in the expert letter which is being presented to local and state leaders.
Several community initiatives have been underway to understand the ecosystem and raise awareness about the Utah Lake Restoration Project. These efforts include research funded by the National Science Foundation and multiple local universities, collaboration between UVU and BYU for the Utah Lake Symposium, the Walkara Way Project, conferences, summits and more.
If you feel that Utah Lake should be preserved, you can sign the petition to repeal HB 272 and eliminate the potential to sell the public land on which Utah Lake rests to private developers.