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On a recent stroll along Utah Lake’s east shore, Ryan Benson pondered an engineered solution to the long chain of environmental insults that have left the mountain-encircled lake an ecological basket case, largely unusable for humans and animals alike.
Gazing out from Lindon Marina, the site of Utah Lake’s worst algal blooms, he described a vision of numerous artificial islands raised from dredged materials. These islands would safely contain the lake bed’s polluted sediments, keeping them out of the water column where they would otherwise feed the algae known to poison the lake.
“These projects have been done around the United States for over 100 years. [Florida’s] Venetian Islands were done in the 1920s, Balboa Island in San Diego,” said Benson, a Utah political consultant and attorney who recently took the reins of the company behind the controversial proposal. “There’s really good technologies that have developed.”
In his new role as CEO of Lake Restoration Solutions, Benson hopes to implement its ambitious plan to dredge 1 billion cubic yards of sediment, lowering the lake bed by 3 to 6 feet, and sculpt that stuff into 20,000 acres of new land. A deeper lake with less surface area would calm the wave action that stirs up sediments and would reduce evaporation. That’s the theory, anyway, but would it work?
This project would be among the largest island-building projects ever attempted in history, and could, according to critics, result in far more environmental harm than benefit.
“There is almost always disagreement in the scientific and [water] management community about what to do about big problems,” said Ben Abbott, a Brigham Young University ecology professor. “I have talked to almost 100 experts from around the state and I have not met a single one who thinks this is a good idea.”
But Benson said his firm is marshaling the research, data and engineering studies that demonstrate building islands will not only work, but also clean the lake and restore miles of habitat. He said he secured commitments from private investors to cover nearly all of the project’s $6.4 billion in costs, but now he’s angling for some buy-in from governmental agencies.
One big ask
Through a request submitted nearly three years ago to the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Land, Lake Restoration Solutions, or LRS, is asking for title to the lake bed and islands formed by the dredged sediments. Currently, the bed is “sovereign” state land that is supposed to be managed in the public trust.
Called Arches Utah Lake, the artificial islands would then use for residential development connected to shore and each other via a system of causeways.
In exchange, the project would restore the West’s third-largest freshwater lake’s ecology, habitat and water quality, and turn it into a recreational destination on par with Idaho’s Payette Lake, Coeur d’Alene and the region’s other big mountain lakes, according to Benson.
In 2018, the Utah Legislature ordered state land managers to consider the company’s proposal, but LRS has yet to file an application or associated documentation with either state or federal agencies that would vet the project.
Benson said the company expects to submit a “notice of intent” in the coming weeks with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which would commence a federal review under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. He pledged a public rollout, making LRS’s experts and engineers available to explain the project and the research supporting their claims that island building would benefit the environment and the public.
He said he could not identify who is providing financial backing.
“Those commitments are in place. Those are signed engagements with some of the largest environmental and impact-oriented funds in the world,” Benson said. “A lot of those relationships are under nondisclosures, so we have to receive permission before we can discuss that.”
Meanwhile, more than three years after it assembled a team to review the application, the state permitting agency has yet to receive anything to advance the project
“We haven’t verified any of those financial statements,” said Jamie Barnes, FFSL director. ”We have not received anything other than what’s on our website and it’s just the proposal.”
One big dump
Utahns have used the lake as a toilet for decades, discharging wastewater, agricultural runoff, industrial wastes, and invasive fish into its waters. Accordingly, algae sometimes explodes in toxic blooms and invasive grasses clutter its shores. Had it not been contaminated, Utah Lake would likely be a natural jewel supporting diverse migratory bird populations, wildlife and native fish.
Instead, its turbid waters are infested with nonnative invasive plants and fish, particularly carp that had been deliberately introduced in 1883. It’s no wonder few visit Utah’s namesake lake in the heart of its second-most populous county.
Benson and his partners want to change that, but doubts linger over whether they can pull it off.
Central to the project is deepening the shallow lake by sucking 1 billion cubic yards of sediments off the lake bed.
“The primary purpose is to remove total dissolved solids … but also phosphorus, nitrogen, other things,” Benson said. “It’s in the sediment until a wave event suspends it. Then it’s in the water column and it prompts an algal bloom.”
His plan is elegantly simple: permanently sequester contaminated sediments in artificial islands.
“Think about 500,000 tons of total dissolved solids,” Benson said. “A lake can’t naturally deal with that quantity of biological material.”
A flawed sales job?
Abbott contends Benson is overstating the magnitude of the nutrient problem on the one hand and overselling the benefits of dredging on the other.
Utah Lake’s polluted sediments are concentrated in Provo Bay, where agricultural runoff entered via the Provo River, and along the northeast shore where sewage and later treated wastewater was discharged, according to Abbott, who organized a forum last month to raise concerns about the project.
“It is a tiny fraction of the lake sediment that is polluted in the way that they’re claiming,” he said. “There’s no ecological benefit of dredging the main body of Utah Lake because the sediment is not polluted.”
According to Benson, LRS is conducting a lake bed analysis to determine the true extent of the nutrient contamination.
Either way, Abbott and others suspect dredging could even make algal blooms worse and disrupt the lake’s ecology in other ways. This is because a deeper lake could ensure naturally occurring nutrients wind up feeding blooms. The lake bed contains background levels of nutrients that predate the arrival of pioneers, according to Abbott. These nutrients are not available to algae because the lake’s water is generally rich in oxygen, and the nutrients remain bonded to mineral particles.
“You can mix up the water and those nutrients don’t get released. It’s unavailable to algae,” Abbott said. “However, once you have a deep lake, you get areas where the oxygen is drawn down. Then you get a massive release of nutrients. This is a well-established phenomenon that happens in artificial reservoirs all around the world.”
The other big technical problem LRS must solve is where to put a billion yards of muck? Hauling it for disposal to the West Desert is not an option. Again, Benson’s solution is simple: create new land.
“The new gold standard is to beneficially use the material and the recommended uses of that are threefold. One is for habitat restoration. The second is for beach replenishment, or you could say recreation,” Benson said. “And then the third is for development.”
Arches Utah Lake would include all three uses by encasing the sediment in “geotextile” tubes that would form the foundations of the islands.
“Some of these islands will be nothing but recreation,” Benson said. “Some will be conservation tools, estuaries or barrier islands.”
And about half will support residential development that could accommodate up to half a million people, according to the project’s founder, Ben Parker. The prospect of suburbia sprawling into the lake alarms many environmentalists, but without development, the project would not be economically feasible.
Real estate sales are what’s going to pay for the project.
Government financial assistance
The company is also seeking loans of unspecified amounts from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) through the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act. This federal program funds billions in low-interest loans to support projects benefiting water quality.
According to the EPA, Lake Restoration submitted letters of interest to participate in 2020 and 2021. The company was not invited to apply after the first request, while its second request is still being evaluated, according to agency spokeswoman Barbara Khan.
In the meantime, the Utah Legislature last session approved $10 million in loan guarantees for the project without any of the usual public vetting for such funding requests. Those guarantees are to be administered by the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity, or Go Utah.
To secure the money LRS must go through the Industrial Assistance Fund, but the company has yet to submit any documentation, so that money has yet to be obligated, according to Go Utah deputy director Benjamin Hart.
“If there’s ever a sense that this project is going to fall apart or not going to be worth the taxpayer dollars, we are not absolutely required to make that investment,” Hart said.
Benson said the guarantees are to help secure funding needed for the project preconstruction phases.
“It’s an important signal from our state partners of their commitment to restoring Utah Lake,” he said. “That money actually stays in the state coffers.”
Unless, of course, the project goes bust. In that case the $10 million goes to the creditors and the state can go back to remediating Utah Lake the old-fashioned way.