Proposed Utah Lake Authority sails through House committee, but faced some public criticism

HB232 would do nothing to facilitate controversial dredging proposal, sponsor pledges.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A boater heads into Utah Lake from Lincoln Beach on Thursday, July 29. Toxic algal blooms can sometimes form on the lake with the Utah County Health Department issuing health advisories for recreators being advised not to swim, waterski, boat or let their pets near the water.

Utah’s ailing namesake lake needs help, but is the answer a powerful new agency with sweeping control over land use and rehabilitation decisions for the 150-square-mile lake at the heart of Utah’s fastest-growing county?

Sponsored by Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, HB232 would establish such an agency to oversee the management of Utah Lake, long plagued with algal blooms and abysmal water quality. His aim is to make reliable resources available to reverse the lake’s decline stemming from heavy nutrient loads and the proliferation of nonnative fish and vegetation.

“There are improvements being made but it’s not moving fast enough,” Brammer told the House Political Subdivisions Committee on Wednesday. “Our population is growing so fast. We need to get ahead of this.”

Viewed by critics as a tool for developers, however, his proposed Utah Lake Authority met tough questions from the public before the committee advanced it on an 8-2 vote, mostly along party lines. Overseen by an appointed 15-member board, the new agency would exercise exclusive jurisdiction over the lake and its lakebed, considered “sovereign” state land to be managed in the public trust.

“You say this isn’t about development, but this isn’t the kind of group you would put together to save an environmentally challenged lake,” said Katie Pappas. “Utah Lake needs help, but it’s a project best left to experts who I understand are already making progress in its rehabilitation.”

Several speakers said they suspect a hidden agenda connected to the so-called Utah Lake Restoration Project. A company called Lake Restoration Solutions is seeking permits to suck a billion cubic yards of sediment off the lakebed to create 34 artificial islands, most of which would support future real estate development to pay for the $6.4 billion project. By deepening the lake by 7 feet and sequestering contaminated lakebed sediments in the islands, the project would improve the lake’s water quality and restore its ecological health, they claim.

These claims have been flatly refuted by Utah scientists who say dredging would result in more harm and would undermine ongoing science-based projects, such as the restoration of the Provo River delta and removal of nonnative carp.

University of Utah law student Taylor Money lamented the narrative pushed by dredging proponents that the lake is an ecological disaster that only heavy-handed measures can fix.

“These are simply not true,” said Money. “I frequently go to the lake to watch birds, to swim, to kayak, to sail, and every time I go there’s other people out there enjoying it. Utah Lake is special. It’s an island of freshwater in the sea of land called the Great Basin. It’s home to thousands of birds that migrate hundreds of miles to nest and breed in the lake.”

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 lakefront cities of Provo, Orem, Vineyard, Lindon and Lehi and Saratoga Springs, the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Environmental Quality.

At least 10 of the members would have to be elected officials, Brammer said. He revised his bill to dispel concerns that the proposed authority would facilitate the controversial proposal to dredge the lake. To that end, the bill would specifically bar the new agency from transferring any lakebed from public ownership and from issuing bonds in support of the dredging project.

Woodland Hills city council member Kari Malkovich said the proposed authority would offer the best shot at rehabilitating Utah Lake.

“It has the potential to be a great, vibrant, healthy lake and that, with these entities coming together, we have a greater capacity to see this vision come to fruition,” said Malkovich, who serves on the Utah Lake Commission, which the authority would replace. She added that it was important for the authority to move forward for the conservation and enhancement of the lake.

HB232 would direct half of the local sales tax generated within its jurisdiction to the new agency. Its annual budget would be $902,000 and its establishment would require upfront expenditures of $170,000. The bill would also increase the Attorney General Office’s budget by $246,600 to provide legal representation to the Utah Lake Authority, but it would save the $68,000 spent every year to run the Utah Lake Commission.

The bill would allow the authority to collect a $2-a-month levy on all 300,000 sewer connections served by wastewater treatment plants that discharge into the lake, raising up to $7 million a year to fund restoration efforts.

Brammer said recent surveys indicate nearly three-fourths of Utah County residents are willing to pay such a fee to improve the lake.

“Forty-five percent of the Utah County residents, despite living very close to the lake, have never been to or have not been to the lake in the last five years,” Brammer said. “This is a huge natural resource and asset that we are treating as a liability, that the locals are not able to enjoy as a public resource.”

Virtually everyone agreed Utah Lake is worth saving. The contentious debate on how to accomplish that now moves to the full House.