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Utah Lake’s environmental problems are so widespread, so entrenched, that fixing them requires massive re-engineering of the 150-square-mile lakebed that forms the centerpiece of Utah Valley, according to proponents of a controversial dredging proposal.
And the only way to finance such an ambitious endeavor is to create valuable real estate with the dredged material and sell some of it to developers, Jon Benson, president of the Utah company behind the proposal, told reporters at a gathering in Salt Lake City’s Grand America Hotel on Tuesday.
It was the first time since unveiling its bold idea four years ago that Lake Restoration Solutions [LRS] made its expert consultants, architects and engineers available. The company is hosting several such events to push back against mounting opposition to the so-called Utah Lake Restoration Project.
Critics fear the project is a real estate scheme dressed up as restoration, and some of the Utah County cities on the lake’s shore are contemplating resolutions opposing it.
Also Tuesday, the American Fork City Council broadcast its doubts in a resolution opposing HB232, a bill that would create the Utah Lake Authority. This powerful new state agency, overseen by an unelected board, would decide how the lake is used and developed.
“Dredging the Lake is unnecessary, ecologically risky, highly expensive, and any islands that could result from such dredging will deface the Lake, harming its aesthetic and recreational values,” the resolution stated. It went on to implore the Legislature to “ensure restoration of the State’s natural beauty, rather than create a pathway for future dredging and development of the Lake.”
That criticism was in line with a myriad of concerns coming from Utah’s scientific community, whose researchers say deepening the shallow lake by 7 feet, as the company proposes, could undermine the lake’s natural function and ecological resilience.
But LRS has said these concerns are premature and misplaced.
For starters, Benson said during the presentation, the dredging project’s chief priority is Utah Lake’s ecological health; development is merely a way to make it financially feasible and half the 18,000 acres of land created would be set aside for wildlife, recreation and open space.
In a permit application filed Jan. 6 with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, LRS detailed plans to dredge a billion cubic yards of lakebed sediments, which would be used to build 34 islands. The plan is to raise the islands in five phases spread over 15 years, starting with an archipelago off Vineyard, the small but fast-growing city on the lake’s northeast shore.
Last year, LRS hired the global engineering firm Geosyntec Consultants and SWCA Environmental Consultants to design the project and shepherd it through a rigorous analysis, which the Army Corps will now oversee.
“The whole reason to dredge is to sequester the sediments,” said Rob Annear, a Geosyntec environmental engineer supervising the project’s water quality components. “You need to put them somewhere. We put them in these containment areas. By dredging the lake you’re deepening it and that also changes the circulation patterns, reduces the amount of sediments that are resuspended. So there’s multiple benefits that occur.”
For decades dating back to pioneer times, Utahns dumped waste and nonnative organisms into the lake with little heed for the environmental consequences, which have doomed the lake to harmful algal blooms and rendered its shores unfit for wildlife or human enjoyment. Every year, tens of millions are spent removing invasive carp and phragmites, restoring wetland and estuary habitat and upgrading wastewater treatment plants.
While the lake continues to suffer, these investments are paying off and its ecology is on the mend, experts say. The once-proliferating Asian carp, introduced as a food source in the 1880s, no longer dominate the waters and native June sucker have rebounded from near extinction.
Benson acknowledged this progress, but these efforts are not geared toward the “comprehensive” restoration and enhancement his company is seeking.
He stressed that land creation is a recognized “beneficial use” of dredged material and noted 70 instances in the United States where this has been done successfully, such as San Diego’s Mission Bay, home of Sea World. For a close analogy to the Utah Lake project, he pointed to the Netherlands’ ongoing Marker Wadden where seven islands, totaling 3,200 acres, are being built on Lake Markermeer.
“This is a hypereutrophic [oxygen depleted] lake near Amsterdam with many similar problems to what Utah Lake is suffering with,” Benson said. ”They saw some of the same pushback we’re seeing. There’s a lot of controversy and questions like, ‘What are you guys doing? What is the purpose of this?’ Now that it’s being implemented and seeing significant benefits, particularly for wildlife. The public is a lot more excited about it.”
Central to the island forming process are massive “geotextile” tubes that would be pumped full of dredged sediments, according to Geosyntec principal Rudy Bonaparte.
“They’re basically fabric tubes. They’re 8, 10, 12, 14 feet in diameter,” Bonaparte said. “the lake sediment is being pumped into the tube, fills it up, pressurized and water seeps out, and the remaining sediment becomes firm.”
These tubes then form the islands’ perimeters, serving as a foundation.
“On the inboard side is where you would put your dredged sediment and build it up and prove it from an engineering perspective so that ultimately you’re leaving either an estuary, recreational or community island,” he said, adding that engineers would locate and construct the islands so they would not liquefy in the event of an earthquake.
Geosyntec has been sinking cone-penetration testing equipment 110 feet deep at 18 sites a mile off Vineyard where the project’s first phase would occur. The purpose of these test is to evaluate the condition of the lake bed and the sediments to determine their suitability for supporting islands, according to Bonaparte.
“What’s fantastic about the phased approach,” said Klair White, LRS’s chief financial officer, “is not only does it allow us to do work at a pace that respects the need to maintain water levels and not cause undue disruption to the existing system, it also allows us to ensure that each phase is technically and financially feasible in its own right.”
The company expects to put up a performance bond to ensure any damage that might be result from the project would be repaired, according to White.
“If there are different ways to make this without development, we’d love to hear it,” Benson said. “the original plans didn’t include development. That’s not our primary purpose. Our purpose is to make Utah Lake clean and healthy again. That’s what we care about.”