John Bennion: Arguments for dredging Utah Lake don’t hold up

Advocates for building islands expect us to take their word for the project’s value.

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

Jon Benson’s paid advertisements on The Salt Lake Tribune website deserve a C for effort but a D for content.

As a former writing teacher, I decided to evaluate Jon Benson’s paid article in The Tribune and elsewhere. He claims we should let Lake Restoration Solutions remodel Utah Lake.

Does the main argument stand scrutiny? Benson states that, if everyone works together, “we” can save Utah Lake. He doesn’t mention those already restoring the lake: the Division of Water Quality, scientists from Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University, the Utah Lake Commission, the Provo River Delta Restoration Project, the Walkara Way Project, municipal governments and many others.

By making “we” slippery, Benson can imply desire to work with others, when the implicit argument is more self-serving: If LRS doesn’t step in, the lake will lose — an obvious either/or fallacy because we have many options to improve the lake.

The article’s supporting claims are that dredging the lakebed to build islands will remove contaminated lakebed sediments, reduce evaporation, allow vegetation to return to the lakebed, expand shoreline and increase wetlands and other wildlife habitat. Let’s examine each claim.

Are lakebed sediments polluted? Two studies by BYU scientists say that while phosphorous levels are high in the lake, they are not statistically different from those in the surrounding landscape and in sediment deposited before the use of chemical fertilizers and the practice of dumping waste into the lake. Similarly, LaVere B. Merritt, consulting engineer at Utah Water Conservancy District, cites conclusions of a 2008 study — that existing pollutants were deposited long ago, and the levels are so low that it is more dangerous to drive a car to the lake than it is to eat the fish caught there.

Mike Mills, of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, reports that “After the Great Depression and up until the late ‘60s, several cities around the lake were discharging raw sewage directly into the lake.” This ended with the Water Pollution Control Amendments of 1972. “That history probably contributes to the reputation that Utah Lake is still polluted.”

Benson says the lake was once naturally clear. He implies that pollution makes the lake cloudy — a common public opinion. However, Merritt writes that turbidity is from suspended mineral particles and the water was always this way. Pioneers may have seen clear water in tributaries on the east side of the lake. Merritt doesn’t believe we can make it clear: “It is difficult to imagine a large-enough water chemistry change to significantly reduce the large mineral precipitation that gives the lake its turbid nature.”

Will islands reduce evaporation? This begs the question of whether we want less evaporation. Recent studies show that evaporation sustains local rainfall and enables essential chemical reactions in the lake. Ben Abbott, an aquatic ecologist, predicts that deepening the lake could increase algae blooms.

Merritt writes that deepening could cause the lake to have less wave-caused turbidity but more biological turbidity from algae growth. The result? A “pea soup” of algae during much of the year — a “major deterioration in lake quality and habitat.” It appears that LRS is a solution looking for a problem, and that dredging might worsen conditions.

Benson also claims that dredging will reduce wave action that prevents growth of lakebed vegetation. Historically, carp was the real culprit, but dredging could make the lakebed unsuitable for plants. Currently, the Utah Lake Commission has coordinated removal of about 30 million pounds of carp.

I’m not sure why expanded shoreline is a benefit, but it sounds good.

Will wetlands be better on islands or on shore? We certainly can improve wetlands, and the Provo Delta Restoration Project is doing so without the help of LRS. The commission has removed tons of invasive phragmites — certainly less expensive than building islands.

Benson suggests we shouldn’t worry because government agencies must review the project. Reassuring. But even if these agencies say the project may proceed, that doesn’t mean that it should. LRS hired engineering and diving companies to survey the lake, and another firm to survey current wetlands. Where are the comprehensive studies of the feasibility of the islands themselves? Maybe they’ve done these studies but forgot to mention them. The entrepreneur who introduced carp had good intentions but didn’t imagine unintended consequences. I can’t see evidence that LRS has either. What will happen when tons of sediment are redistributed on a notoriously unsteady lakebed?

More than 100 scientists signed a statement that building islands in Utah Lake is a bad idea. LRS stands to profit from real estate sales. How has that motive affected their science? Reputable writers of solid arguments describe the limits of their claims, but Benson’s are left to the reader’s faith. As the saying goes: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

John Bennion

John Bennion formerly taught creative writing, composition and literature at Brigham Young University. He is a member of Conserve Utah Valley.