Cami Kenworthy: Legislature needs to protect Utah Lake and repeal HB272

Plan to dredge lake and build islands is not good for the lake or for Utah.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Lake on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022.

I love Utah Lake. I live nearby and often walk along its shores with my children, enjoying its diverse ecosystem. I especially love birdwatching and have even seen bald eagles there.

Utah Lake has come a long way in the last 50 years. Despite its history of human-caused pollution, recent science-guided projects have decreased invasive species and aided the native June sucker, a fish still threatened but no longer endangered.

The Provo River Delta Restoration Project is providing integral habitat for these fish, along with other ecosystem benefits. Onshore, phragmite abatement is encouraging native plant life to rebound, and coming upgrades to wastewater treatment plants will help prevent future pollution.

Notwithstanding this progress, a company called Lake Restoration Solutions has proposed various ways to restore the lake. For example, they plan extensive dredging over the course of 15 years. With the material removed from the bottom of the lake, LRS will build artificial islands, half of which the state will grant outright to LRS for development. Because the dredging will create new low-oxygen zones in the water, LRS will have to construct mechanical aeration systems. To deal with invasive carp, LRS would remove a population of June sucker, poison all 96,600 acres of the lake with Rotenone (a broad-spectrum insecticide and pesticide), and return the June suckers when this process is finished.

The plan flies in the face of ecological laws, which teach us to limit interference in nature to avoid causing unforeseen harm. In other words, “solutions” like these could cause many more problems. The outcome of LRS’s plan won’t be restoration, but transformation of the lake to a veritable city.

While I disagree with LRS’s methods, focusing on their proposal detracts from an even more troubling issue: Our sovereign land is in jeopardy. Utah Lake’s lakebed, like that under other navigable waters, is considered sovereign, “to be held in trust for the people” according to the Utah Constitution. States cannot sell or trade sovereign lands to private companies, as doing so transfers custodianship away from the public body, violating the public trust for current and future Utahns. Decisions from the highest courts affirm Utah as custodian of this trust.

In a questionable attempt to circumnavigate the public trust, then-Rep. Mike McKell and then-Sen. (now Lt. Gov.) Dierdre Henderson advanced HB272 in 2018. The bill allows “dispos[al] of state land in exchange for the execution of a project for the comprehensive restoration of Utah Lake.” LRS’s proposal was dated January 18, 2018, mere weeks before HB272 was signed into law. The bill’s wording seems tailor-made for LRS; indeed, the private company is the only one that has submitted a land-swap plan. HB272 has left our lake vulnerable to being sold to private interests.

I am in favor of repealing HB272 — or substantially amending it. The bill contains no quantitative benchmarks for meeting the requirement “restoration,” leaving the state vulnerable to LRS’s interpretation (or that of another company in the future). It does not allocate responsibility for lake and island maintenance once the land leaves state hands, nor dictate liability if the project fails or is unable to be completed. Its vague wording doesn’t do enough to protect our lake.

Utah Lake is public land and as such, the people need to have a say in what happens to it. If we don’t amend or repeal HB272, Utah Lake will continue to be vulnerable to proposals such as Lake Restoration Solution’s. Please join me in contacting our representatives to demand the repeal or amendment of HB 272.

Cami Kenworthy

Cami Kenworthy lives in Vineyard and is a senior at the University of Utah studying environmental sustainability.