Toph Cottle: Congress should allow the clean-up of Utah Lake

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lincoln Beach at the southern end of Utah Lake closed because of a toxic algal bloom on July 26, 2019.

Thanks to the Utah Lake Restoration Project, it looks like the lake might finally start getting more blue — but not if the EPA has anything to say about it.

The Utah Lake Restoration Project is a lake cleaning effort of massive proportions, meant to “turn the clock back 150 years on the ecosystem degradation of Utah Lake.”

It’s a great plan to revert the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi back to its former glory. Unfortunately it needs regulatory approval from the EPA, and that’s oh so hard to get. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) will cost the project several years, and $550 million just to break ground—that’s assuming everything goes as planned. There’s got to be a better way.

Evey Utahn with a love for lakes knows the drill. You tell someone you’re going swimming in Utah Lake and you’ll get, in response, a scrunched nose and a questioning eye. “You’re going there? Good luck!” And for good reason: The lake is constantly coated in green algae.

It wasn’t always like that. When the first settlers came to Utah in the 1840s, the lake was a pristine clear-water lake. It provided a natural reservoir of snowmelt for irrigation and to temper the weather from the hot Utah summers. As the area became settled, carp were introduced to feed the population, damaging local plant and animal species. Eventually, it became used as a dump for sewage, mining, and energy waste by the citizens unaware of their impact on the ecosystem. Before they knew it, their beautiful mountain lake had become an environmental disaster.

Enter the Utah Lake Restoration Project. The effort, privately funded at a hefty price tag of $6.4 billion, will dredge the lake to a depth of 12 to 15 feet — the current depth is only nine feet. Some channels will become over 90 feet deep, the current deepest point is around 13 feet.

Using the dredged material, islands will be constructed on the lake for recreation and a new housing project. The housing on the island will cover some of the costs of the project, and also create a new municipality in the county. All invasive species, both plant and animal, will be euthanized. What’s more, a fishery and conservation center will be built on the lake, breeding local fish populations back to normal levels. Privately funded, environmentally-centered initiatives like this could be the future of public-private partnerships in the U.S.

As it stands, the project is roughly a decade away from making significant progress, but the EPA seems hellbent on stretching the time period out even longer. In fact, before the government grants the needed permits, the project must navigate 20 different state and federal regulations. The most comprehensive of these regulations? NEPA. It’s a costly process to help a dying lake. The project remains positive about the regulatory process, but that doesn’t make it any less absurd to complete.

NEPA, and the majority of laws governing the US environment, were passed in the 1970′s during the Nixon and Ford presidencies. This was long before mainstream adoption of solar panels, wind turbines or any sort of privately funded lake cleanup. Yet, policy still forces us to comply with needless regulations.

The average NEPA process takes 4.6 years and $1.4 million for mundane projects like installing solar panels. Worse yet, anti-development groups can litigate the process, adding years and costs to any project. Recently, residents of Berkeley, California, won a lawsuit forcing UC Berkeley to undergo NEPA before accepting more students into the university. The added time and cost and discourages any effort to go green. In 1970, NEPA protected the environment. In 2021, it’s stomping on any efforts to do better.

If we want more projects to help our environment, Congress has to rewrite the laws. NEPA’s original text stated its purpose is to encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment. If we want to fulfill the actual purpose of NEPA, we need to clear the way for Utah Lake’s restoration. The project’s website poses the question “Can you imagine a clear and clean Utah Lake?” Honestly? No, I can’t. Not only because I’ve never known a clean Utah Lake, but because intense regulation is choking out the odds for one to ever exist.

Toph Cottle is a master’s student at the University of London SOAS focusing on development finance and sustainability. He’s a Logan, Utah, native.