Federal docs give first look at Utah Lake plan to build islands for real estate

The Army Corps of Engineers has launched a two-year environmental review of the Utah Lake Restoration Project.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Lake from Sunset Beach Park in Vineyard on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022. The lake may feature 34 islands under a dredging plan under review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

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A proposal to dredge Utah Lake would result in 34 artificial islands connected to the east and west shores through a system of causeways and bridges, according to documents posted Tuesday by the Army Corps of Engineers. Boat ramps, docks and beaches would be installed on some of the 189 miles of shoreline.

The Utah Lake Restoration Project, a controversial plan to dredge a billion cubic yards of sediment, could transform the West’s third-largest freshwater lake from an ecological mess to a paradise for wildlife and recreation, proponents claim. Or, critics say, it could make a bad situation irreparably worse.

Sorting out the project’s actual effects is now the job of the Corps, which has launched a two-year environmental review.

The vast majority of the 18,000 acres of created land would support real estate development, that in turn would generate the billions required to “comprehensively restore and enhance” the lake, according to a plan advanced by Lake Restoration Solutions [LRS], the Utah company seeking to dredge the shallow lake’s bed and market the resulting real estate.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Its application, prepared by the engineering firm Geosyntec Consultants, frames the project as the last and best hope for rescuing the lake after decades of neglect and misuse as a bottomless receptacle for fetid effluents and invasive fish.

“Despite significant efforts [to reverse the damage], Utah Lake continues to degrade,” the 194-page application claims. “Without significant and comprehensive restoration and enhancement efforts, the future of Utah Lake, its plants, animal species, and use of the lake by residents of the state of Utah remains uncertain.”

An example of geoengineering on an epic scale, the company’s proposal aims to deepen the lake by an average of 7 feet and sequester contaminated lakebed sediments into artificial islands. Under 2018 legislation, the company would be rewarded for its efforts, if they successfully restore the lake, by gaining title to the islands which could be sold to developers.

Tuesday’s posting is the first time the public was given a look at the details of Lake Restoration Solutions’ proposal, which includes scientific support for its claims that dredging would clean up the lake’s water, degraded by nutrient-laden sediments that are stirred up by nonnative bottom fish and wave action.

Greg Carling, a Brigham Young University geology professor who has studied Utah Lake sediments, was not impressed with the application.

“They leave a lot to be desired. There’s just a lot of details they leave out and they point to the future environmental impact statement,” Carling said. “At this point, they make all these claims, but there’s no evidence for how they’re going to do that. It’s like they’re overpromising a lot of benefits.”

LRS proposes to develop three types of islands. Eight estuary islands set aside for fish and wildlife habitat would take up 750 acres, or just 4.7% of the total; eight islands set aside for recreation would take 1,312 acres; and the remaining 89% would go toward development, nearly 16,000 acres on 18 islands.

Connecting the islands would be 9.5 miles of roads built on causeways, bridges and elevated platforms. Most of the roadways would be eight lanes wide.

“They claim there’s going to be better circulation of water,” Carling said. “How does islands and causeways create better circulation of water? So there’s some cases where that may be true but I could also see the opposite being true.”

He’s concerned water isolated between islands and the mainland could become stagnant, particularly in the 2,000-acre bay that would be created off Vineyard in the project’s first phase.

Academic scientists — including Carling and a BYU colleague the company has taken to court for alleged defamation — say Utah Lake’s problems are already being reversed under ongoing restoration efforts and dredging the lake would likely set back the lake’s recovery by undermining its natural resilience.

“In addition to the ecological risks of the proposed changes,” wrote BYU ecology professor Ben Abbott in court papers. “I believe that LRS is undermining crucial education and outreach activities by falsely claiming that Utah Lake used to be a clear-water lake, that waves and evaporation are damaging, that sediment is heavily polluted, that algal blooms are worsening, that the lake is rapidly deteriorating, and that restoration efforts have been ineffective.”

Abbott’s remarks were made in a countersuit he filed Tuesday against the company, alleging its suit is an illegal abuse of the legal process designed to prevent him from speaking out against the project.

LRS’s 194-page application, plus hundreds of pages of supporting documents, were filed on Jan. 6 to secure what’s called a 404 permit required under the Clean Water Act for disturbing wetlands and the beds of navigable waters. The Corps had declined to release the documents until this week when the application was deemed complete.

LRS also declined to release the filings, even as critics pressed company officials for documentation supporting their claims. John Benson, the company’s chief operating officer, responded by rebutting naysayers and suing Abbott.

“Because the permitting and NEPA process is data-driven and requires a thorough vetting of the scientific merits and public interest, including both public comment and submission of contrary evidence if any exists, we find it mystifying that activists with academic credentials would have the audacity to spread the falsehood that our proposal lacks scientific support, without having reviewed our scientific evidence,” Benson said in a Jan. 6 news release.

He added that LRS was “confident the science will stand up to a rigorous review.”

According to the permit application, the company intends to commence a sampling study of the lakebed this summer to characterize the sediments and the harmful nutrients they contain. But Carling says such studies have already been done and they do not indicate widespread nutrient loading in the lakebed.

Yet LRS’s project is premised on a belief that the contamination is widespread.

“They don’t have anything to back that up. And if you actually look at some studies that I’ve done and others, for the most part, the sediment contains background concentrations of phosphorus,” Carling said. “Maybe there’s some hotspots with high phosphorus, but that doesn’t give me a lot of confidence that we need to dredge the entire lakebed.”

The plan, as outlined in the application, is to dredge nearly all the lakebed except at the proposed island locations, called “containment areas.” The islands would be outlined by “geotextile” tubes filled with sediments and then infilled with more lakebed sediments.

At normal level, Utah Lake’s depth averages 13 feet. The dredging would drop the bed between 3 and 35 feet.

These greater depths would improve navigability for recreational boating and reduce wave action, the application claims. And by reducing the lake’s surface area by 20%, the project would significantly reduce water losses from evaporation and increase the lake’s storage capacity.

But as with the purported water quality benefits, members of Utah’s scientific community questions whether these outcomes would occur or if they can even be considered “beneficial.”