James Westwater: Developer’s plan for Utah Lake threatens to be an ‘unmitigated disaster’

Utah Lake is not ‘broken’ and its restoration does not require a radical plan.

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

According to scientists, Utah Lake is facing a man-made threat that would cause irreparable damage to the lake and a significant loss of public ownership. Specifically, a limited liability Delaware corporation — with no corporate track record in restoring lakes — proposes to “restore” Utah Lake by killing all the fish, dredging the lake and building a massive island-city complex in the lake — which they would own — to house up to twice the population of Salt Lake City.

According to scientist Sam Rushforth, emeritus dean of the Utah Valley University College of Science, “The so-called restoration of Utah Lake as proposed by the developers is not possible. It would not restore the lake. In effect it would destroy the ecosystem of the lake and potentially harm much of its watershed, including Utah Valley. The proposed restoration/island-building project would be an environmental catastrophe — an unmitigated disaster.”

The claims sited below are from statements offered by the developer to justify the private takeover of a large part of our publicly-owned Utah Lake.

Developer’s claim: Dredging and island-city-building is needed and would restore Utah Lake to a clear, pristine state at “zero” cost to taxpayers.

• Correction: Independent Utah Lake scientists say the lake is naturally shallow and turbid, not deep and clear. A pristine Utah Lake never had a huge island-city complex in its midst with multiple causeways crossing it. Utah taxpayers are already in effect subsidizing the project through a $10 million loan guarantee provided to the developers by Utah legislators. If the private developer fails, taxpayers would likely be on the hook to pay billions to clean up the damage.

• Developer’s claim: Utah Lake is “broken.” It’s in bad shape. It’s a “cesspool,” an “eyesore,” a “mud puddle.”

• Correction: Utah Lake could use more help, but the lake is improving in most areas. It is naturally shallow and turbid. That is healthy for the lake.

• Developer’s claim: For decades, efforts to help the lake “have proven futile”and “algal blooms in Utah Lake have worsened.”

• Correction: Utah Lake is on a road to recovery thanks to hundreds of state, federal and university based restoration projects undertaken over the past 30 years. Algal blooms overall are actually declining.

• Developer’s claim: Utah Lake “evaporation is a significant challenge,” and wind and waves need to be fixed.

• Correction: In fact, these natural characteristics — evaporation, wind and waves — are beneficial, making the lake incredibly resilient and supplying essential services to our community. Lake evaporation provides moisture for rain and cooling in warmer months, and potentially adding much needed snowpack in winter. Wind and waves keep the water mixed and help prevent fish kills in summer.

• Developer’s claim: Utah Lake needs to be dredged to restore it. How much needs to be dredged? ... “one billion cubic yards.”

• Correction: According to environmental scientists from UVU, Brigham Young University and Utah State University, dredging Utah Lake as proposed by developers would be harmful. Multiple studies have shown that healthy sediment removes pollutants and provides habitat. Dredging and island-city building can release pollutants and would alter the structure and chemistry of the lake, likely making algal blooms more frequent and damaging.

• Developer’s claim: Restoration of Utah Lake will require approximately $6.4 billion in private investment.

• Correction: Utah Lake can be restored in environmentally sound ways for a small fraction of the cost without harmful dredging and without deeding to a private developer a large part of our valued public treasure. Many helpful, successful and restorative projects are currently underway, and more will be done with public support.

James Westwater

James Westwater, Ph.D., Spanish Fork, is chairman and founder of the all-volunteer Utah Valley Earth Forum (UVEF.org) and a member of the U.S. Climate Action Network. He is a former NSF Artist in the Antarctic and a two time National Endowment for the Arts Resident Artist. His website is VisionOfTheWest.com.