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FOX 13 News 360: The future of Utah Lake

Posted at 10:18 PM, May 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-17 00:29:49-04

VINEYARD, Utah  — Utah Lake is an important part of the state's ecosystem for wildlife, the economy and outdoor recreation.

But decades of neglect have taken their toll.

"Clearly it needs some love," said Craig Christensen, the president of the environmental group Conserve Utah Valley.

The lake has been plagued with carp infestations, seasonal toxic algal blooms and the invasive plant species phragmites.

"We’re seeing an increase in population, we’re seeing an increase in development, we’re seeing an increase in pollutants. There’s a lot going on and it’s having a real impact on the lake," said Jamie Barnes, the executive director of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands.

With a lot of attention paid to the shrinking Great Salt Lake, more people are now paying attention to the health of Utah Lake (which feeds into the salt water lake through the Jordan River).

"We’ve put a lot of human pressure on the lake, and now we’re starting to pay attention to what needs to happen to restore it," said Christensen.

New ideas — including the concept of dredging the lake and building islands in it — are being advanced.

"Utah Lake has been struggling for many decades," said Jon Bensen, the president of Lake Restoration Solutions, which is proposing the dredging project. "There’s a lot of discussion since the '80s and '90s about restoring Utah Lake."

Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, the chair of the powerful House Natural Resources Committee in the Utah State Legislature, has been holding a series of summits with Conserve Utah Valley on the health and future of Utah Lake. They've seen bigger crowds with each meeting.

"It’s really helpful and encouraging to see what is taking place and the notion behind the summits is really education. Good information leads to good decisions," he told FOX 13 News.

Christensen said it is good to see people paying attention to Utah Lake.

"People are absolutely starting to pay attention. They realize there’s so much we love about Utah Lake and so much we don’t like. And with a little bit of attention, a little bit of focus, we’ve actually done some amazing things to keep it as pristine as it is and it has a long ways to go," he said.

One reason Utah Lake is getting so much interest is Lake Restoration Solutions' proposal to dredge the lake and build islands on it. A once fantastical idea, it's backers are very serious about making it happen.

"It’s actually not our idea," Benson told FOX 13 News. "If you go back to the early '90s, there were plans to do similar things, to dredge the lake, to form islands with that material. Even causeways and bridges across the lake have been talked about for a long time. I think what makes it work is the need. The need to restore Utah Lake is there."

Lake Restoration Solutions has proposed building dozens of islands from material dredged from the lake. They would have different uses — some would be developed with commercial and residential buildings and roads leading to them.

"Different islands have different uses, right? Some of those islands are just for birds, wildlife habitat. Those will have a different process than what you’d need for say a recreation island that would have more human interaction or even a community island that would have structures, permanent structures on them," Benson said.

Lake Restoration Solutions has begun the work to get the project going. They have submitted an application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers outlining their plans. A comprehensive environmental study is getting under way. Benson acknowledged the project will not be cheap and could take more than 15 years to complete.

"Our estimate for the comprehensive restoration is about $6.5 billion. Our plan, of course, is to do with a public private partnership model which we would do by bringing private resources to the table which we would do without a tax increase. But it is time consuming, very expensive to restore a lake of this magnitude," he said.

Benson said he is confident the federal government would approve the plan.

"This is the right process to go through and the public can have a lot of confidence that the outcome will be the right outcome. Ultimately, we believe the Army Corps will decide to approve and move forward with this project or some variation of it," he said.

Conserve Utah Valley does not believe the island project is a good idea. Christensen said he has concerns about a private developer taking on such a massive project.

"This is not a sound idea. And then to do it to the entire lake? This is like you’ve got a cut on your finger and you cut your arm off. This is overreaction," he said. "My concern is we need a restoration solution, not a real estate solution."

Instead, Conserve Utah Valley has prodded the state and communities to do more to clean up Utah Lake. Rep. Stratton told FOX 13 News he is "agnostic" about the project, but the legislature did advance a series of bills that will impact the lake and any restoration projects.

Rep. Stratton created more of a process with more input from the legislature, state agencies and the governor for any rehabilitation project. The bill that passed the legislature did have support from both Lake Restoration Solutions and Conserve Utah Valley.

"The intent was not to create more hurdles, the intent was to create more integrity in the process. To answer the questions that needed to be answered. To be more prescriptive in the approach, increasing the transparency that needs to take place. Whatever we do, we’re on sound financial footing," Rep. Stratton said.

Another bill creates a special "Utah Lake Authority" to make decisions about rehabilitation projects and funding to accomplish it.

"It helps us prioritize the projects that we’re doing and the impact that they have," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland.

While his bill was not tied to the island project, Rep. Brammer said lake rehabilitation will happen regardless of that project.

"They’ve got a long road ahead of them. The Army Corps of Engineers, the EPA and then they have to go to our DNR, then our legislature, then the legislative management committee. Those are lot of pretty significant hurdles to prove their case," he said. "And if they can, maybe it will be a pretty great project. But if they can’t meet their burden? We have something to fall back into the Utah Lake Authority."

Utah's Department of Natural Resources has already begun work to restore the lake. Carp infestation removal has shown some signs of success. The agency has done some work to remove invasive plant species like phragmites. The Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands said tackling toxic algae is top of the list this year.

"We’re hoping that we’re starting to get a handle on things but we can do better and we need to do better and we need to start being proactive instead of reactive," Barnes said.

Rep. Brammer said he surveyed constituents and found growing support for restoring Utah Lake. Many constituents even said they would favor paying a little more in taxes if it meant helping the lake.

"Not only do constituents not normally like to do that, but Utah County constituents are very fiscally conservative," he said. "Number one, they understand the value of Utah Lake. But number two, they understand this is a public stewardship we have over that lake and they take that seriously."

With the lake's restoration, Rep. Brammer told FOX 13 News he is considering a bill in the 2023 legislative session to change the name of Utah Lake to "Lake Timpanogos" in recognition of the Timpanogos tribe that was in Utah Valley before Mormon pioneer settlers came in.

"A new name for the lake is perfectly appropriate so you’re not dragging all that stigma from 100 years of mistreatment forward into what we hope is a new and better era for Utah Lake," he said.

Rep. Stratton said he plans more summits on Utah Lake. At the next one, he said, he plans to invite Lake Restoration Solutions to detail their proposal.