Utah Lake can be saved without massive dredging sought by developers, experts say

Scientists’ symposium points to progress restoring the lake, cautions against island-building pushed by Utah lawmakers

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lincoln Beach at the southern end of Utah Lake has been closed because of a toxic algal bloom on Friday, July 26, 2019.

Orem • Utah Lake might be a mess, but its ecological health is recovering thanks to various projects to restore shoreline habitats, rid its waters of invasive carp and reduce the nutrient loads that spur algal blooms.

The last thing one of the West’s largest freshwater lakes needs is to be dredged and privatized into a network of island subdivisions, according to numerous presenters Wednesday at a hastily convened symposium at Utah Valley University. Such a scenario has been proposed by a company that claims deepening Utah Lake will solve its problems stemming from decades of abuse and neglect.

Tribal official Mary Murdock Meyer, chief executive of the Timpanogos Nation, isn’t buying it.

“It seems to me this project would do more to damage than help,” said Meyer, whose ancestors once inhabited the lake shore, in her opening remarks. “Utah, I ask that you please take heed to what the experts opposing this project have to say. Our people and the reeds around this lake give you your name. We stand in favor of restoring the lake to its natural beauty, but have to oppose privatizing and desecrating this historic sacred site.”

Brigham Young University ecology professor Ben Abbott and UVU colleagues organized the symposium in response to what they see as ill-advised proposals to create an “authority” to oversee the lake’s restoration and to sculpt the lakebed into island subdivisions to absorb Utah County’s meteoric growth.

“It would be a tragedy to alter it with man-made islands,” said Kevin Shurtleff, a UVU chemistry professor. “There are better solutions to reduce harmful algae blooms and make the lake more pristine and recreation friendly.”

Yet a company called Lake Restoration Solutions has won the backing of Utah lawmakers to advance a $6.4 billion real estate venture called the Utah Lake Restoration Project.

In a statement released in advance of the symposium, the company decried the “misinformation” that it expected to be conveyed at the event. The statement didn’t identify what critics were getting wrong, but simply touted the “millions” the company has invested in research aimed at improving the lake.

“This is an innovative solution that uses sound science and proven restoration processes,” Lake Restoration Solutions CEO Ryan Benson said in the statement. “We’ve brought together a team of international experts who have worked on similar projects around the world. With the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers poised to begin a federally required environmental review process, we’re looking forward to sharing results of our existing environmental and engineering studies and obtaining public input on the project.”

The Army Corps, however, is hardly “poised” to start an environmental review. Benson’s company hasn’t even submitted an application, although on July 30, the agency did receive a request for a pre-application meeting, which has yet to take place, said Jason Gipson, chief of the Army Corps’ Utah regulatory section, in an email.

“During that meeting, the Corps, as well as other federal and state agencies with authority over the resources potentially impacted by the proposed project, can ask questions about the project, provide guidance to navigating their respective processes and provide comments related to reducing impacts to the resources of concern,” Gipson said.

Under Lake Restoration Solutions’ proposal to the state, the company would invest in various habitat restoration projects in exchange for title to lakebed. The plan is to deepen the shallow lake and use the fill to create 28 square miles of islands, one-fifth of the entire lakebed. This new land would in turn support residential and commercial development connected to the Provo-side shore via causeways.

Dredging would expand water storage on the lake by 30 billion gallons and provide recreational amenities and new habitat, proponents say. Symposium organizers did not invite project proponents to speak at the event, which was held in a glass-walled conference room with views overlooking the lake.

The project would somehow clean up the lake’s nutrient-laden waters, remove invasive organisms and eliminate the algal blooms that afflict Provo Bay and the east shore during the summer and fall months, according to the company’s proposal.

“The island building itself is regenerative,” said Laura Smith, an architectural consultant the company hired, in an interview.

Abbott and many other scientists, however, contend it would probably do the opposite. The lake’s shallowness and turbidity ensure its resilience, according to Abbott. Deepening it through dredging, would not only disrupt the lakebed’s ecological function, but also create temperature zones with cold water at the bottom, instead of the uniform temperature the water now sees.

“I see almost no scenario where that wouldn’t increase the severity and risk of having these really bad water quality issues, particularly with the [reduced] oxygenation of the water,” Abbott said. “The proposal does acknowledge that fact and then proposes to use bubblers and other machines to solve this problem. So it seems backwards to me where we have an ecosystem now that’s incredibly resilient and they’re proposing changes to make it more vulnerable … and then are adding a very costly and complicated solution to the problem they’re creating.”

But state Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, sees the islands offering some benefits in terms of public safety and increased water clarity.

“People don’t realize how big [Utah Lake] is and it’s a very turbid lake. The wind patterns have an impact on the sediment and stir it up quite a bit,” Brammer said. “To some degree, islands can act as a windbreak and help quell some of the turbidity. That can increase safety a little bit as well. It provides some breaks for people so they’re not out in the middle of nowhere [on the water]. There’s two or three deaths each year on the lake.”

Brammer sponsored legislation that would create the Utah Lake Authority, modeled on the Utah Inland Port Authority, that would be vested with taxing and decision-making powers to fix the lake. His HB364 failed last session in committee, but Brammer is bringing the bill back after making changes to address objections to its previous iteration.

The project has already won the backing of the state Legislature which directed the Department of Natural Resources to evaluate the proposal in 2018. Three and a half years later, Lake Restoration Solutions has yet to submit any scientific studies that would convince the state that island building would benefit the lake or be in the public interest.

“At this stage we haven’t seen enough detail on the project to make any sort of conclusions about impact, either beneficial or otherwise, for water quality,” said Erica Gaddis, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality. “We will, of course, be looking at wastewater and stormwater runoff. We are very interested in the changes in the shape of the lake and how that might affect potential stratification or circulation, all of those elements we look at closely.”

Everyone agrees that Utah Lake is a precious resource that should be restored to ecological health, but opinions diverge sharply on how to get there. For Mary Murdock Meyer, it starts with honor and respect.

“The lake holds a lot of power that maybe you guys don’t see,” the tribal leader told the symposium audience. “It’s a spiritual thing. When you disturb stuff like that, you bring things on yourselves. My hope is that it would be cared for prayerfully and it would be restored and not damaged. It’s not a tourist attraction. It’s a part of our culture. And of everybody’s here.”