State lawmakers looking to form Utah Lake Authority to restore polluted waters

Sponsor says the bill has nothing to do with an artificial island city proposed for the lake that’s still in the works.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Utah Lake is plagued with invasive species, a nutrient overload and toxic algal blooms, as seen in this file photo from 2019.

A Utah lawmaker is considering legislation to create a new Utah Lake Authority that would have broad authority over the management, cleanup and future use of the state’s largest freshwater lake.

Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, is sponsoring the legislation, which has not yet been numbered or made public. But a recent draft obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune shows it would create a 13-member Utah Lake Authority Board, with members appointed by the governor, Legislature, Utah County, the local Chamber of Commerce and numerous cities that border the lake. The lake authority would serve as a political subdivision in charge of managing and rehabilitating a body of water that has long vexed state and county leaders.

“I think we can step up and do a little more to make it a real asset for our population,” Brammer said. “Right now, it’s seen as more of a liability.”

The bill would also repeal restoration oversight from the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands and turn it over to the new lake authority.

Utah Lake is plagued with invasive species, heavy nutrient loads and frequent toxic algal blooms. In 2018, lawmakers estimated it could take as much as $7 billion to rehabilitate its waters. They passed HB272, a bill that could allow private developers to dredge the lake bed and turn state-owned “sovereign lands” into artificial islands, and a city of up to half a million people, to help fund its cleanup.

The lake authority draft bill mentions “excavation, importation, movement, or other work on land to reconfigure” its contours as part of the body’s management duties, as well as constructing or reconstructing public structures and utilities.

But Brammer said his Utah Lake Authority bill is “agnostic” on the artificial island project.

“The thing people will always go to is the island thing,” he said. “I haven’t built this bill to tip anything toward [that].”

Lake Restorations Solutions Inc. submitted a formal land swap proposal to the Department of Natural Resources in 2018 to begin its island-making project, one of which could be terraformed to look like Delicate Arch, as reported by the Daily Herald. The state is now waiting for the federal government to begin a review process, according to a department spokesperson.

Whether the island project moves forward, Brammer said Utah Lake needs someone looking at the bigger picture of how it’s regulated.

“One way or another, we need to take responsibility for the lake,” he said. “This doesn’t decide how that happens.”

A government body already exists to manage development and natural resources associated with the lake. The Utah Lake Commission was formed in 2007, and includes members and support from 15 different cities, Utah County, the Central Utah Water Conservancy District and state agencies, including the Department of Environmental Quality, the Department of Natural Resources and the Division of State Lands.

“In my review of the [bill] draft, I have a lot of concerns, but I’ll reserve final judgment until I receive the bill that’s not in draft form,” said American Fork Mayor Brad Frost, who is a member of the commission. “I’m very concerned that the bill has not been numbered and made widely available to the public [yet].”

Brammer said the Utah Lake Commission does a “great job” but that a lake authority would have “more ability to interact with the lake and more ability to get resources to the lake.”

Board members would need to report back to lawmakers in November about how to fund the lake authority’s operations, including whether it could become a taxing authority, impose fees or collect a portion of property tax revenue from neighboring cities.

The draft bill also modifies a tax ordinance to allow the Utah Lake Authority to collect 50 cents from each sales and use tax dollar “within the project area,” similar to how sales tax revenue is collected for the Inland Port Authority. The authority could issue bonds as well.

“It’s a bigger shovel to start remediation for the lake,” Brammer said.