Proposed Utah Lake Authority wins Legislature’s approval

Two bills, HB240 and HB232, look to put ailing lake on path to recovery.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The pumphouse where the Jordan River meets Utah Lake in Saratoga Springs on Tuesday, March 1, 2022.

The Legislature this week passed a pair of bills regarding the future of Utah Lake, now the focus of intense public interest after more than a century of neglect that has led to myriad environmental ills. HB240 and HB232 are both ostensibly geared toward reversing Utah Lake’s sorry state in hopes of improving its water quality and its ability to support public recreation and wildlife.

HB232 would replace the Utah Lake Commission with a powerful authority overseen by an appointed board with exclusive jurisdiction over the lake’s 150-square-mile bed in the heart of the fast-growing Utah Valley. Sponsor Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, made several revisions to alleviate concerns that this proposed agency would advance a controversial dredging plan known as the Utah Lake Restoration Project.

Meanwhile, HB240, sponsored by Rep. Keven Stratton of Orem, would increase the level of scrutiny this $6.4 billion proposal would receive prior to winning state approval. A Utah company known as Lake Restoration Solutions, or LRS, wants to deepen the lake by 7 feet and use the lake bed sediments to create 18,000 acres of artificial islands, which could then be given to the company if certain conditions are met.

Stratton’s bill, which would require that such land transfers are financially appropriate and legally sound, won supported by LRS president Jon Benson. Benson characterized Utah Lake’s current condition as “toxic,” an assessment rejected by numerous Utah scientists who say ongoing restoration efforts are working and comprehensive dredging is about the last thing the lake needs.

“We appreciate that Rep. Stratton was willing to work with us on changes reflected in the current version of the bill,” said Benson. “We support the refined process outlined in the bill and will continue working with the state, the EPA, the U.S. Army Corps, and other agencies to review plans to restore and enhance Utah Lake. The future of Utah Lake has never been brighter.”

Under HB232, the newly formed Utah Lake Authority would craft a comprehensive management plan for the lake to coordinate land-use and rehabilitation decisions.

“This is a great approach. We need authority,” Senate sponsor Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, told colleagues. “We need something stronger today than what we’ve done in the past. It’s simply not been enough.

The bill cleared the Senate Tuesday in a 20-8 vote, with all Senate Democrats voting against, after shutting down an amendment proposed by Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, that sought to block dredging in marsh areas enjoyed by duck hunters.

“The amendment is designed to ensure that the natural health and the open public nature of those areas are preserved and not compromised by any future projects,” said Weiler, who went on to vote against the bill. On the House side, Rep. Stratton joined most of his Democratic colleagues in voting no.

The new Utah Lake Authority would be overseen by a 15-member appointed board made up of representatives of the Legislature, the Governor’s Office, Utah County and several lakefront cities. It would have taxing and bonding authority to enable it to raise money to fund rehabilitation projects. It would operate under a $1.5 million appropriation, according to Brammer.

Brammer stripped out provisions that would have allowed the authority to “dispose” of lake bed, which is classified as sovereign state land to be managed in the public trust. Critics complained these now-deleted provisions would have allowed the authority to sell lake bed to developers.

The bill’s original version would have allowed 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 for rehab projects. Brammer removed that provision as well.