Tara Bishop: Who will pay for Utah Lake to be destroyed?

The damage done to Utah Lake by dredging project would be on Utah taxpayers.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Lake, seen from Saratoga Springs on Tuesday, March 1, 2022.

As a living body of water, Utah Lake has shown resiliency to human-perpetuated destruction. Though, as humans, to build resiliency we must first recognize the signs before we can take adequate corrective action.

As the population grew around Utah Lake this last century, we dumped waste, introduced invasive species and diverted water leading to numerous problems. However, in the last few decades, we recognized the unintentional attack on the lake and course-corrected through careful planning, transparency, collaboration and scientific research. These restorative actions have been successful, even though some still wrongly label it “a disaster.”

Abusive interactions have warning signs such as demanding control, lack of communication, exclusion, dishonesty and coerced trust without reciprocation. Utah Lake, which influences the local climate and snowpack, deserves protection from abuse with careful separation of fact from fiction and a transparent trustworthy process before any action, legislative or private, takes place. Currently, threats to Utah Lake are flashing the warning signs of abuse, with the Lake Restoration Solutions project in the lead.

LRS acquired loan guarantees from Utah taxpayer money on the unsubstantiated premise that they can successfully dredge nearly 1 billion cubic yards of lakebed sediment and build 18,000 acres of islands from the sediment, and it will somehow “restore” Utah Lake.

Questions were raised such as: How will the $6 billion-plus project be funded without more taxpayer money? What is their evidence that it would not cause irreparable damage? Who will own the islands and what will they even look like?

Utah state Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, said it well: “Every bad idea ever fulfilled by government comes with the clause, ‘Just trust me’.“ He goes on to highlight LRS’ unconfirmed claims of reputable financing, corroborating science and that privatizing the sovereign land of Utah Lake is OK — even if it violates the public trust doctrine. And if you ask for proof, their response is a variation of ‘just trust us’.

Trust is an organic, moldable relationship that requires nurturing. Yet, what has LRS done to build trust with Utahns? In my experience thus far, little to none. For example, LRS demanded public trust by refusing to share its dredging proposal before submitting it to the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. It supposedly contains the project’s supporting scientific evidence. It does not.

Recently, experts constructed a response after carefully reviewing the proposal and concluded that LRS made unsubstantiated claims about the lake’s status, and left important sections “undone, underdone, or plagiarized” from other sources. Yet, they still want us to trust them.

One misleading claim is that lakebed sediments are full of excess nutrients causing severely toxic algal blooms. They offensively disregard published scientific evidence demonstrating the lake is not a disastrous cesspool. In fact, recent studies show algal blooms have overall decreased in the last 35 years, overall nutrient levels are low, and it has been nationally classified into the lowest category of algal bloom severity. In other words, Utah Lake algal bloom problems are less than other freshwater bodies in Utah. Unfortunately, this tends to be a controversial sticking point surrounded by the spread of misinformation and unsubstantiated claims, particularly by LRS in recent years. But we should still “Just trust them.”

Another misleading claim is that the view will be minimally impacted. LRS states only half of development islands (8,800 acres) will be sold, with an estimated 300,000-500,000 inhabitants. At 34-57 people per acre, that is at minimum equal to the populations of Provo, Orem, Vineyard, Pleasant Grove and Lehi. A 2018 summary, written by LRS, includes acres for single-family homes, medium/high-density housing and commercial high rises where buildings may be more than 20 stories (about 280 feet). Yet, LRS has failed to provide any schematics of what developments look like, but, we should still “Trust them.”

I admit, I’m no city planner, but I thought I could help make 3D renderings based on LRS’ documents. I share here one of several renderings of this projects’ minimum potential. My renderings are direct copies of LRS’ island map but with only 2,300 developed acres, a quarter of their intent. After seeing these I recognized the warning signs, do you want to still, “Just trust them”?

Recently Jon Benson, CEO of LRS, asked “Who will pay for Utah Lake to be restored?” Publicly, LRS’s documentation is, in essence, a thank you letter for the investment invitation. This is not verification of reputable funding, though they have already taken $10 million Utah taxpayer dollars with no accountability. They’ve shown no evidence that the project will be successful and, in fact, data point towards irreparable damage.

So, who then pays after LRS has failed or sold the land and washed their hands of the project? I, therefore, counter with: “Who will pay for Utah Lake to be destroyed?” If LRS is allowed to continue with their destructive project, the answer is clear: Utahns will pay for it, interminably.

Tara Bishop

Tara Bishop, a lifelong Orem resident, is a Ph.D. ecosystem ecologist with expertise in how disturbance affects ecosystem structure and function.