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A deep dive into Utah Lake: part 1

Sun setting over a lake with mountains in the distance
Mark Esguerra
The sun sets over Utah Lake.

Utah Lake has been at the center of controversy because of a project planning to dredge and build islands on the lake. Supporters say it’s restoration, critics say it’s harmful development hiding under the guise of restoration.

Utah Lake is the largest freshwater lake in the state. The lake is high in nutrients from agricultural runoff which acts as a fertilizer leading to massive growths of algae in the lake. These harmful algal blooms can sicken swimmers and pets, and create oxygen-free zones in the water as they decay, killing organisms living in the lake.

In an effort to solve the lake’s problems, the company Lake Restoration Solutions, or LRS, has planned an ambitious dredging project.

Klair White is the LRS chief financial officer. She explained the company plans to build islands with the dredged material, creating 18,000 acres of new land that will cover a fifth of the lake’s surface area. Half the islands will be reserved for wetland habitat, and the rest will be developed.

“The rest of the acres will be split approximately half…so, real estate, for residential, new housing, commercial…and the other half will be designated for public infrastructure to support that development," White said.

LRS has fundraised half of the money for the project and plans to get the remaining funds, totaling 893 million dollars, from the EPA’s Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act. They were waitlisted for the loan in early December, but White said they will reapply this year.

“We are on a waitlist pending clarification, just a small number of items that were in our submitted letter of interest. But we are already working iteratively with our assigned underwriter to provide that additional information clarification," White said.

Should the loan come through, LRS would then have to apply for a permit from the US Army Corps of Engineers to actually begin dredging, a process that could take up to two years.

While LRS said the project will benefit the lake, a group of over 100 scientists, engineers, managers and environmental lawyers formally spoke out against the project in December 2021, citing environmental concerns and feasibility.

Greg Carling, an associate professor of geology at Brigham Young University, said he’ s worried the project is really about development rather than restoration, and that preexisting restoration projects are already in progress to help the lake.

“They're planning to put 500,000 people out on the lake, but they're casting it as a restoration project, like they're saving the lake. But it's, like, people that have been studying the lake, we know that it's still an amazing resource," Carling said.

Groups that have spoken out against the project include Friends of Great Salt Lake, the Sierra Club, the Timpanogos Nation and the Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance. The LRS is currently suing BYU Professor Ben Abbott, who has been outspoken against the project, for defamation.

Part II of "A Deep Dive into Utah Lake", will explore the ecology of the lake and current restoration efforts.

Ellis Juhlin is a science reporter here at Utah Public Radio and a Master's Student at Utah State. She studies Ferruginous Hawk nestlings and the factors that influence their health. She loves our natural world and being part of wildlife research. Now, getting to communicate that kind of research to the UPR listeners through this position makes her love what she does even more. In her free time, you can find her outside on a trail with her partner Matt and her goofy pups Dodger and Finley. They love living in a place where there are year-round adventures to be had!
Aimee Van Tatenhove is a science reporter at UPR. She spends most of her time interviewing people doing interesting research in Utah and writing stories about wildlife, new technologies and local happenings. She is also a PhD student at Utah State University, studying white pelicans in the Great Salt Lake, so she thinks about birds a lot! She also loves fishing, skiing, baking, and gardening when she has a little free time.