Brittany Thorley: One reason why I’ll never support the Utah Lake islands project

Project would give too much state-owned land to a private developer.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Jordan River meets Utah Lake in Saratoga Springs on Tuesday, March 1, 2022.

If you’ve driven by University Mall lately, you may have seen a billboard with a picture of a pristine lake that alludes to better recreation in Utah Valley.

This is an ad placed by a development group called Lake Restoration Solutions, which wants to build 18,000 acres of islands in Utah Lake for a development of half a million people (almost doubling the current population of Utah County) and promises restoration of Utah Lake along the way. They would have you believe that their plan is the best way to create a better utilized Utah Lake without immense cost to taxpayers.

But the truth is that this “deal” requires Utahns to turn over one-fifth of Utah Lake over to private ownership, a cost that all Utahn’s should find outrageous.

I won’t hide my own bias. I think this plan is brash and under-planned and will have harmful consequences on quality-of-life for Utah Valley residents. I am concerned that such a massive dredging project will ruin Utah Lake water quality. I worry that communities surrounding Utah Lake, like Vineyard or Saratoga Springs, will bear the burden of years of construction and become mere off-ramps to the island developments. I also fear that such a drastic change to the lake’s surface area may lead to even worse air quality in our valley.

But the one reason I can never support a plan that allows developers to build islands in Utah Lake is because such a plan requires the state to give up lands that belong to the people of Utah.

The Utah Lake Restoration Act, passed in 2018, says that the state may “dispose” of state land in Utah Lake “as compensation” for restoration of the lake. Another bill passed in the 2022 legislative session (HB240) would create more oversight for when the state can make this kind of a trade, but ultimately still allows the state to turn over ownership of parts of Utah Lake to private developers.

If you have never heard of the public trust doctrine, perhaps this sounds reasonable. But this kind of exchange violates state and federal law. The public trust doctrine is a legal principle that requires a state to preserve public use and access to larger bodies of water, and Utah’s Constitution and statutes incorporate this principle into our state law.

So, whether you love Utah Lake, hate Utah Lake, or have never even been to Utah Lake, the state owes you and all future residents of Utah a duty to preserve this body of water and manage it in ways that serve the public’s best interests.

Of course, the public trust doctrine recognizes that circumstances may allow a private party to build a pier or small piece of infrastructure if it benefits public access or does not harm public interests. But I find no explanation that reconciles these principles with a plan that grants a developer exclusive possession of one-fifth of the lake.

And that is why, even if a developer promises incredible restoration benefits to Utah Lake, I will never support any proposal that requires the state to turn over ownership of the lake. It gives away far too much.

Brittany Thorley

Brittany Thorley is a law student at Brigham Young University.