Could a bill to study Utah Lake end up supporting a reservoir in the Great Salt Lake?

Professors said they were approached with plans that seal off Utah Lake’s Goshen Bay and turn it into artificial wetlands, facilitating development of wetlands elsewhere in the watershed.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wetlands at Goshen Bay, on the south end of Utah Lake, on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024.

A much anticipated bill that would explore how to tap Utah Lake to revive the Great Salt Lake has finally seen daylight. But whether it will turn to dredging or dikes remains up in the air.

The text of SB270 is simple enough. It calls on the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands to conduct a study, facilitated by $1.5 million in taxpayer funds. The inquiry will explore ways to improve Utah Lake’s clarity, to remove invasive species like carp and phragmites, to restore fish and wildlife habitat, and to enhance recreation access.

Those are things scientists and Utah Lake advocates have researched and championed for years. What makes this legislation unique, however, is a vague paragraph directing the division and the state engineer “to identify conditions” that may “affect” the state’s ability to deliver water from Utah Lake to the Great Salt Lake.

That section, said sponsor Sen. Curtis Bramble, is the bill’s crux.

“Is there a way to use Utah Lake as part of the challenges that we have with the Great Salt Lake?” the Provo Republican told lawmakers late Friday afternoon, during the bill’s first committee hearing.

Utah Lake is the largest natural freshwater lake in the state, covering about 150 square miles. Its water flows down the Jordan River to the Great Salt Lake, which historically covered around 1,800 square miles and is the largest saline system in the U.S.

Lawmakers only have a few days until the 2024 General Session ends, and Bramble’s bill essentially dropped at the eleventh hour. But he received permission to file after certain deadlines from senate leadership, with both Bramble and Senate President Stuart Adams emphasizing multiple times that former Gov. Gary Herbert was behind the legislation.

[Related: Lawmakers turn to Utah Lake to help rescue Great Salt Lake. Will dredging be part of the solution?]

In a previous interview before the bill text became public, Herbert mostly spoke about causeways and dredging but did not share much detail.

“If you really want to save the Great Salt Lake,” Herbert said late last month, “rather than take water from agriculture and farmers, there may be other ways to move water.”

And it appears engineering Utah Lake isn’t off the table.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wetlands at Goshen Bay, on the south end of Utah Lake, on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024.

Bramble did not respond to multiple interview requests. But during Friday’s hearing, the lawmaker stressed his bill “wasn’t a Utah Lake restoration project.” He also noted the legislation was not meant to “put a thumb on the scale” for any single solution for Utah Lake and Great Salt Lake.

“Let them take a white sheet of paper and come forward with a proposal, with an idea, complete with an action plan,” Bramble said, “that tells us this could work.”

Bramble didn’t specify what he meant by “this.”

“It just says, here’s an opportunity,” Bramble continued. “And we didn’t want to bias it, one way or the other.”

The lawmaker then began to talk about engineered embankments and how they facilitated the Provo River Delta, Provo airport and Lindon boat harbor.

“So when someone says ‘No dikes at any point’ that’s a little bit of a bridge too far,” Bramble said. “But this is not about that.”

The lawmaker further noted he and Herbert had conferred with Brigham Young University professors to discuss the bill.

Are lawmakers going to dam off Goshen Bay, and build a freshwater reservoir in the Great Salt Lake?

BYU faculty confirmed at least one such meeting occurred on Jan. 10, shortly after the Legislature convened. It included ecology professor Ben Abbott, geology professor Greg Carling, geography professor Matt Bekker and civil engineering professor Wood Miller, along with Bramble, Herbert and Justin Jones, the director of Herbert’s policy think tank at Utah Valley University.

“We support the idea of having a multiyear study to look for ways to conserve water across Utah Lake and the Great Salt Lake watershed,” said Abbott, who has spent years drumming up public interest in protecting both lakes.

Miller declined an interview request about what happened in the meeting. But the other three professors agreed it was mostly positive, although vague.

“It seemed like they were trying to get support for money to fund a study on Utah Lake,” Carling said, “but without any specific interventions.”

As the meeting wrapped up, however, the scientists said Herbert pulled out some professionally rendered engineering drawings.

“We were literally walking out the door,” Bekker said.

The diagrams showed what Herbert called a “potential” solution for both lakes. It would dike off Goshen Bay in Utah Lake, essentially cutting that lake’s surface area down by a quarter. That water would then get sent down the Jordan River to the Great Salt Lake’s Farmington Bay, where it would be diked and stored as freshwater, similar to the Willard Bay reservoir on the lake’s northeastern end.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Willard Bay Reservoir and diking, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022.

Goshen Bay, in turn, would get converted into a massive artificial wetland, which developers could use as a bank of sorts, allowing them to pave over wetlands elsewhere in the watershed.

“The first claim was that it would reduce evaporation,” Abbott recalled. “That’s incorrect on multiple fronts.”

Wetlands still evaporate water, Abbott noted, and the plants that grow in them suck up water and release it into the air. The professors also had serious concerns about the proposed wetland bank.

“You’re going to destroy part of the lake,” Abbott said, “to create crappy wetlands that may or may not have ecological value.”

Carling worried the proposal would create a giant area overrun with invasive phragmites, which plague both Utah Lake and Great Salt Lake and are notoriously difficult to eradicate.

“It’s such a large area of wetlands,” Carling said. “It’d be hard to maintain a healthy ecosystem.”

And storing a quarter of Utah Lake’s water in freshwater Farmington Bay reservoir isn’t going to solve the Great Salt Lake’s many problems either, the professors said.

“Farmington Bay is much bigger than Goshen Bay,” Bekker said, “so it’s not a one-to-one.”

(Photo courtesy of Kevin Perry) A new phragmites colony establishing itself on the Great Salt Lake playa on the eastern side of Farmington Bay. Antelope Island is in the background. Kevin Perry, an atmospheric sciences professor with the University of Utah, spent more than 125 days pedaling 2,300 miles around the Great Salt Lake to study the lake’s heavy metals in lake dust and its effects on the Wasatch Front air quality.

The Great Salt Lake needs an influx of freshwater that mixes with the saltwater to prevent its salinity concentrations from spiking. In 2022, as the Great Salt Lake hit its lowest record elevation, rising salinity had wiped out its brine flies, visibly stressed its brine shrimp and put its whole ecosystem on the verge of collapse. Walling off the Jordan River’s inflows and essentially creating another reservoir would prevent that water from mixing with the rest of the lake.

“The distinct impression I got,” Abbot said, “was this is a water scheme proposal. It’s going to make freshwater bodies better for power boats, regardless of the broader ecological implications.”

When asked for a copy of the renderings Herbert presented, Jones said he did not have them and they were not a record produced by UVU.

“The purpose of Bramble’s bill is not to suggest any of those solutions, but to begin a process looking at solutions,” Jones said. “I don’t think the diagrams would be relevant.”

The Great Salt Lake has no outlet — water only leaves through evaporation. Overconsumption in its wider watershed has caused the Great Salt Lake to shrivel to record lows. About 800 square miles of its lakebed sits exposed, weathering away by the day into a public health disaster.

Utah Lake is not without problems, either. Like the Great Salt Lake, it is large and shallow. Nutrient loads make it prone to toxic algal blooms. It has long struggled with invasive species and receding water levels.

A private company called Lake Restoration Solutions, or LRS, emerged around 2017 and began floating a fantastical idea to dredge Utah Lake in order to improve its water quality. The dug-up sediment would then get terraformed into island real estate and sold off to developers to pay for the project.

The group did not have a strong scientific foundation for its claims, but it still managed to lure the support of many state lawmakers. The Legislature appropriated $10 million to the project in 2021. Gov. Spencer Cox even nearly hosted an official meeting later that year announcing LRS had received a $1 billion federal loan, even though records show LRS’s executives likely knew that wasn’t true.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ben Abbott, a BYU professor, poses for a portrait at a Utah Lake overlook on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. It appears lawmakers and lobbyists retaliated against scientists who didn't support the Utah Lake dredging and islands project and Abbott had state funding cut for a watershed research project.

The dredging proposal ultimately collapsed in the summer of 2022, when state officials determined it was unconstitutional. But it came with significant fallout. LRS attempted to sue Abbott for defamation after the professor raised concerns. The company dissolved and filed for bankruptcy before a court could determine how much it should pay Abbott for legal fees and penalties when LRS’s litigation proved unsuccessful. The scientist suspects lawmakers who supported LRS worked behind the scenes to revoke his state-funded research grant as well.

Abbott and the other professors, however, said they hold out hope that Bramble’s proposal will set up a holistic approach to the lakes that includes the best science. They said they sent the lawmaker and former governor a list of suggestions, including an explanation of why damming off Goshen Bay was not the best path forward.

“The idea of the meeting was fantastic,” Bekker said, “to bring people together, ... to contribute to a healthier lake and more water.”

Abbott said he welcomed any discussion that explored “thoughtful” protection of both the lakes and their watersheds.

“If these guys are trying to engage constructively on the Utah Lake issue,” Abbott said, “then I don’t want to burn the bridge.”