Polling shows strong support for Utah Lake dredging, but critics say the survey is biased

Lake Restoration Solutions commissioned survey that found 67% of Utah County residents support deepening the lake, restoring habitat and creating shoreline.

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

New “scientific” polling commissioned by the group proposing to raise islands on Utah Lake in the name of environmental restoration has found strong support for the controversial project among Utah County residents.

Leading critics, however, say the questionnaire’s wording throws doubt on the poll’s objectivity and say the results amount to “political advertising” from Lake Restoration Solutions, or LRS.

For example, the key polling question describes the project in ways that ignore the potential harm island building could cause and never mentions “dredging,” which is the project’s primary activity, observed Ben Abbott, a Brigham Young University ecology professor and vocal opponent.

“The questions themselves are extremely leading. If I got a survey that asked me, ’Do you want delicious chocolate ice cream delivered to your house every morning without it costing anything?’ My answer would be yes,” said Abbott, who is being sued by LRS over his past criticisms. “Actually it’s a surprise to me that as many people said no [on the Utah Lake project] given how the question is phrased.”

Between June 1 and 13, G1 Research queried 613 randomly-selected Utah County residents, according to a news release issued Monday by LRS. After being read a description of the project and its supposed benefits — habitat restoration, miles of new shoreline and beaches, waterfront communities, deeper and cooler water — a full two-thirds said they supported it. The margin of error is 4 percentage points.

“Restoring Utah Lake and providing better recreational opportunities are critical priorities for Utahns, and this poll shows Utah County residents clearly support the effort,” Jon Benson, LRS’s president, said in a statement Monday when the company released the polling. “These results confirm the support we hear in conversations with so many in our community around Utah Lake and reaffirm the state Legislature’s concept for providing a comprehensive solution to restore and enhance Utah Lake.”

Support was strong regardless of age, gender, political party, income or education level.

“It’s so refreshing to see this broad support,” Benson said. “These results are a great starting point, but we want to keep building on this support as we go forward in designing the project. The Utah Lake Restoration Project can be something that Utahns can be proud of for generations.”

To conduct the poll, LRS hired the Sandy-based G1 Research, whose tactics on behalf of Donald Trump-aligned candidates resemble “push polling,” or what some pollsters are now rebranding as “message testing.”

While the Utah Lake survey is not a push poll, Abbott argued that its questions advance a phony narrative about the lake’s ecological problems, which stem from decades of pollution and neglect, and ignore the progress being made toward addressing them.

Left out of the polling question was the project’s aim to dredge a billion cubic yards of the lake bed, which Utah’s scientific community fears could worsen the lake’s ecological problems and disrupt ongoing restoration projects. It also failed to mention the subdivisions it would create for up to half a million people atop the dredged materials. Also not mentioned are concerns among Utah water managers that building 18,000 acres of artificial islands could reduce the lake’s storage capacity and render the pump station at the mouth of the Jordan River inoperable.

Here is how G1 framed the project:

“The State of Utah, the EPA, and other federal agencies are currently evaluating a project to improve Utah Lake. The Utah Lake Restoration Project proposes making the lake deeper and cooler, restoring wetland vegetation and wildlife habitat, creating miles of new shorelines and beaches for recreation, and establishing waterfront communities. The cost of these improvements would be in the billions. The sale of the property on some islands is proposed to fund the entire restoration effort without a tax increase.”

Benson rejected criticism that this framing gave a misleading, one-sided picture of the project.

“G1 Research is a respected polling organization. They’ve been doing political and public interest surveys for over 20 years,” he said in an interview. “They wrote the questions. They did ask our input. We were very careful not to give leading questions or anything that could be perceived as biased, because we wanted to get a true measure of how people really feel about this, because that’s an important question to us to know.”

He noted that the Legislature, in a 2018 bill, identified several goals the project must achieve to receive approval.

“Much of what is described in that question is just their requirements. If we’re not achieving those requirements the project doesn’t go forward,” Benson said. “The intent was to describe the project in a way that’s descriptive enough that those who don’t know about it could say if they generally support or oppose it.”

Whether the dredging would accomplish the state’s goals will be determined in an ongoing environmental impact statement by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Abbott contends the poll’s rosy characterization of the project, which aligns with LRS’s marketing campaign through radio and television ads and social media posts, distorts public debate on how best to solve the lake’s problems.

“Restoring an ecosystem is a lot like practicing medicine. I want my doctor to be making decisions about what treatment to recommend based on the most rigorous, replicated science,” he said. “I don’t want them to be running a poll asking, ‘What’s the most popular medical treatment being bought off Amazon?”

The poll also reported 76.6% of the respondents agreed with the statement, “Utah Lake is not healthy and there are things that can and should be done to improve it,” versus 15.3% who believe “Utah Lake is doing fine in its current state. Leave it alone and let nature take its course.”

Abbott said this line of questioning obscures long-standing efforts to restore the Provo River Delta, revive populations of native June sucker, remove Asian carp and other invasive species and reduce algal blooms. These and other science-based restoration projects are now bearing fruit.

“They’re stoking negative stereotypes about the lake in an effort to manipulate public opinion,” Abbott said. “This is one of the most damaging things about this project. They have a narrative that says, ‘Nothing’s being done with Utah Lake. The state agencies and federal partners and cities and private groups that are working on Utah Lake now aren’t making any progress. You need to turn the lake over to us.’”

Nothing could be further from the truth, he said.

Polling results also affirmed how little Utah County residents try to experience the nearby lake filling the heart of their valley. Nearly 40% said they had not visited Utah Lake in the past 3 years. Some had never visited it at all, even though the lake is walking distance from Provo, Orem, Saratoga Springs and other fast-growing cities and boasts a state park and several marinas.

When asked which lake they prefer visiting for recreation, only 4.5% of the respondents identified Utah Lake. The top five preferred lakes for Utah County residents are Deer Creek Reservoir, Strawberry Reservoir, Bear Lake, Lake Powell and Jordanelle Reservoir, all located in other counties.

But if there is one thing Abbott and Benson can agree on, it’s probably a hope that Utah Lake someday cracks that top-five list.