Commentary: Keep Utah Lake shallow and wet

If we try to bend the environment to our whims, we do so at our own peril.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Todd Parker talks about plans for islands and a city on Utah, Lake, Thursday, January 11, 2018.

In the dry valleys of the Great Basin, Utah Lake stands out as a vibrant freshwater oasis — a warm, shallow wetland critical to surrounding ecosystems and society. Pressure from the 600,000 inhabitants in Utah Lake’s watershed has taken a serious toll on its hydrology, ecology and overall health. Perhaps just as troubling is the declining symbolic health of Utah Lake.

What Utah Lake means to us is changing, and its status as a defining natural landmark appears to be evaporating. The recent proposal to privatize and reshape the lake, as well as widespread — but incorrect — beliefs that the lake is dying, are both a symptom and a cause of our increasing disconnection from our place. This disconnection has led many to believe Utah Lake doesn’t even deserve to be a lake any more.

The Arches Utah Lake corporation recently convinced state legislators to dredge Utah Lake’s bed to create more than 30 square miles of artificial islands. In what seems like a sardonic joke, these islands would be shaped like Delicate Arch, defacing one of Utah’s emblematic wonders with the image of another.

In return for the lakebed, would-be developers have promised remedies for the lake’s ecological woes. While it is unclear how this project could restore the lake while tearing up its bed and piling a half-million people on top of it, it is clear that an invasive project of this scale could push Utah Lake past a dangerous and potentially irreversible ecological threshold.

Deepening the lake and clearing its waters could worsen the intensity and duration of algal blooms. A deeper, divided Utah Lake would be vulnerable to anoxic dead zones that kill all animal life and cause the lakebed sediments to release tons of phosphorus and toxic compounds.

The windblown and warm characteristics of the lake that this project wants to change are the very attributes that currently protect Utah Lake from the worst effects of human pressure. Adding a half-million people to the lake while dredging up its life support system is a recipe for ecological collapse.

More generally, this rushed and legally questionable island project could undermine the ongoing recovery of the lake. Local and state investments over the past few decades have restored perennial river flow to the Provo River, removed most of the carp and resulted in near-complete removal of waste from previous industrial dumping. Utah Lake can likely return to full ecological function by upgrading wastewater treatment plants, reducing non-point pollution, continuing invasive-species removal efforts and conserving water.

It is appealing to think that a private entity funded by foreign investors could solve Utah Lake’s issues at no cost to us. However, restoring the long-term health of Utah Lake and its complex ecological communities requires addressing the roots of local issues — extensive nutrient loading and water diversions. Quick-fix, for-profit “solutions” are bound to backfire.

When that happens, Utah taxpayers will be left holding the bag.

When we take care of the place we live, it takes care of us. If we try to bend the environment to our whims, we do so at our own peril. Disconnection from Utah Lake has led to a widespread belief that it has no value or that it could be traded for something that looks like Dubai, Lake Tahoe or anything but what it is. What Utah Lake has always been is good enough. Keep Utah Lake shallow, clean, muddy, warm, beautiful and wet. Leave islands in the ocean, arches in Arches National Park, and the lake in Utah Lake.

Andrew Follett

Andrew Follett is an environmental science student at Brigham Young University.

Ben Abbott

Ben Abbott is a professor of aquatic ecology at BYU.