Draft bill would create a Utah Lake ‘authority’ similar to Inland Port Authority

New agency would have no say over proposed island project in the lake and could not ‘dispose’ of public land, sponsor says.

(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.

A bill being circulated among Utah County officials would create a Utah Lake Authority — the functional equivalent to the Inland Port Authority in Salt Lake City — that would wield sweeping control over land use, improvement and rehabilitation decisions on the state’s largest body of freshwater.

Critics fear the proposed authority, untethered to established regulatory and land management agencies, could facilitate controversial plans to create an artificial island real estate project on the lake. That was one of several concerns raised last year when the proposal, under a different bill, first surfaced in the Legislature.

A company called Lake Restorations Solutions has proposed dredging Utah’s namesake lake to create up to 20,000 acres of artificial islands to be used for recreation, habitat and real estate development. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will soon begin an environmental review of the plan, which will require signoff from the Utah Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Legislative Management Committee under 2018′s HB272.

The draft bill’s sponsor, Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, said he removed problematic provisions from his revised bill, which is expected to be formally introduced soon in the session that just opened.

The Utah Lake Authority is unrelated to the island-building project and would have no say in its permitting, Brammer emphasized.

“The Utah Lake Authority is not part of that process in any way,” Brammer said Thursday. “This entity would maybe have to manage things, but it doesn’t make any decisions with it. It’s not intended to make decisions on helping or hurting the island project. It’s really just improving the lake.”

Brammer’s attempt at a similar bill last year crumbled late in the session amid opposition from cities that objected to losing their authority over the area surrounding the lake and part of the tax revenue.

According to Brammer’s email last week, how much of the local tax revenue the Utah Lake Authority would capture is still being worked out and likely to be the subject of a separate piece of legislation. As drafted, the new authority’s jurisdiction would be confined within the historic waterline of the lake — 4,489 feet above sea level.

The language in Brammer’s draft bill is strikingly similar to that in the Inland Port Authority legislation passed in 2018 — in large portions the two pieces of legislation are identical. The Legislature has created several such entities in recent years, raising alarms among environmental activists

“What we’ve seen is the creation of these unaccountable and often very-closed-to public-input authorities that just take the opportunities to take tax dollars and spend them to subsidize private development,” said activist and legislative watchdog Steve Erickson.

Brammer’s HB364 stalled last year over objections that it would have concentrated land-use authority over the 150-square-mile lake into a new political subdivision. By sidelining state and local agencies, the measure was widely seen as a vehicle for paving a path for the so-called Utah Lake Restoration Project.

Many scientists and environmentalists fear the project’s massive dredging operation would further damage the lake, which has long struggled with pollution-driven algal blooms, invasive vegetation, loss of native biodiversity and terrible water quality. At various public meetings since last year’s legislative session, Brammer went out of his way to dissociate his proposed authority with the island-building project, which has garnered the support of the state’s political leadership, even though the environmental benefits of dredging are far from certain.

Brammer’s revised proposal tries to allay critics’ concerns by explicitly not granting the new agency the power to give away state-owned lake bed, which is supposed to be managed by the state in the “public trust.”

Nothing in the proposed statute “may be construed to allow the disposition of title to any land within the lake authority boundary in exchange for the implementation of an improvement project,” the draft bill states.

According to Brammer, the authority’s purpose is to pursue major projects to restore the neglected Utah Lake, long used by generations of Utahns to dump industrial waste and sewage. The Utah Lake Authority would be empowered to issue bonds to finance these projects and pay for them by levying taxes and collecting other revenues. It would replace the existing Utah Lake Commission, which lacks much in the way of resources and authority.

“We’ve got a long history of a lot of people who care about the lake and no one who has the authority or the ability to actually make as much of a difference as we would like them to,” Brammer said at a symposium last July. “The Utah Lake Commission has done a wonderful job with the tools they have been given, but to care for the lake, we need a bigger shovel. The Utah Lake Authority is intended to be a bigger shovel.”

Brammer emphasized that the authority’s goal is to turn the neglected lake into a high-quality water amenity that enhances the quality of life in the Utah Valley, salvage the lake’s natural function and drive economic development. Creating a powerful state agency is a necessary step toward pulling off the kind of large-scale projects needed to make a difference, he argued.

“Currently, it is not entirely clear who is in charge of the different functions of the lake, who can make decisions for the lake and how to fund those improvements on the lake,” Brammer said Thursday. “This is meant to address those three issues.”

But critics, such as Brigham Young University professor Ben Abbott, have argued the current system, overseen by DNR, is working with numerous restoration and research projects underway that are showing some success.

For example, the state has already removed about three-fourths of the invasive carp that have clogged the lake since that fish’s unwise introduction in 1883 and native once-endangered June sucker are on the road to recovery thanks to a stocking campaign and the restoration of the delta where the Provo River enters the lake.

“These rumors and assertions about the demise of Utah Lake are greatly exaggerated,” Erickson said. “I’m not sure that this requires the sort of big shovels that Rep. Brammer refers to, nor any changes in the management of the lake to the extent that he’s proposing.”

The new agency would be governed by a 15-member board with representation from the governor’s office, the House and Senate, Utah County Commission, Utah County Council of Governments, Utah Valley Chamber of Commerce, the cities of Provo, Orem, Vineyard, and Saratoga Springs, DNR, and the Department of Environmental Quality. Conspicuously absent from that list is the Utah water community, which has a strong interest in the lake.