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A storm is brewing over the future of Utah Lake

Utah Lake
Emily Means
At nearly 150 square miles, Utah Lake is one of the largest freshwater lakes in the Western U.S.

When people think of Utah Lake, they might think it’s kind of gross.

It's mostly known for its algal blooms, murky water and invasive plant and fish species.

But one person’s icky swamp is another’s recreational paradise.

“It's a wonderful, unique lake,” said Keith Morgan, who started a waterskiing club on the lake in the 1970s. “There's not another lake like this anywhere.”

Morgan has spent a lot of time on the body of freshwater in Utah County. He said he’s noticed a lot fewer algal blooms over the decades, but back in the 1980s, they were a sight to behold.

“They would be like 11 inches thick, and it would look like white shaving cream on the top, going down to that deep emerald green underneath,” he said. “You could ski right through it. We avoided it, but sometimes it was unavoidable. That was pretty fun.”

Keith Morgan
Emily Means
Keith Morgan has been water skiing on Utah Lake for decades. He attended an event held by Conserve Utah Valley to learn more about the proposal to dredge up the lake bed and create islands there.

The “Utah Lake Restoration Project”

Morgan and about two dozen other people biked to the lake in December for an event hosted by the group Conserve Utah Valley. The organization is trying to raise awareness about a proposed project that could drastically change the lake’s future.

It’s being pitched to state officials as the “Utah Lake Restoration Project.”

“This is a comprehensive plan to address all of the aspects that are damaging to the ecosystem that need to be improved,” said Jon Benson, president of Lake Restoration Solutions, the company behind the project.

Benson said the goal is to improve water quality and help native plant and animal species thrive. To do that, they want to dredge the lake. That means digging up the lake bed to deepen the water and remove sediments from the bottom that have lots of nutrients.

Then, that sediment would be turned into three different types of islands: habitat for wildlife, recreation and development.

The islands could potentially house hundreds of thousands of residents.

Benson said conservation is the main goal for his team, but he believes the islands meant for development are necessary to pay for the “restoration.”

“It sounds like a bunch of developers that want to privatize the lake. That’s how we’ve been characterized,” he said. “We care about this lake. This is the economic engine that makes the project work.”

A lake in recovery

According to Ben Abbott, an ecosystem ecologist at Brigham Young University, the lake doesn’t need to be dredged.

He and around a hundred other scientific experts say the proposal is basically the opposite of what the lake needs.

“They're sharing misinformation about the status of the lake and its future and using that as justification for destroying the lake,” Abbott said.

Now, he is trying to educate people about the health of the naturally shallow lake and the restoration projects that have led to great outcomes already — like the recovery of a native fish.

“The algal blooms are on the decline,” he said. “The delisting of the June sucker, one of the endemic species that only lives here … downlisted from endangered to threatened because of concerted restoration efforts. Even in our huge drought, the lake is still mostly full, and that’s a great success.”

Ben Abbott
Emily Means
BYU professor Ben Abbott talks about the environmental impacts he believes the Utah Lake Restoration Project could have on the lake.

Isabella Errigo, with Conserve Utah Valley, said the more she’s learned about what the lake does, the more she wants to help protect it.

“It regulates climate,” Errigo said. “It helps give us the perfect, amazing ski snow that we have every year. It is really an important ecosystem.”

Abbott and Conserve Utah Valley’s outreach efforts seem to be paying off. The Provo City Council recently passed a resolution outlining their support for “science-based preservation” of Utah Lake.

Taking legislative action 

State lawmakers are getting involved, too.

Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, is hosting the Utah Lake Summit Tuesday night at Utah Valley University to bring more attention to what’s going on there. His district neighbors the lake.

He’s also sponsoring legislation to amend the 2018 law that opened the door to the islands proposal.

“The intent is not necessarily to make it harder for any project to move forward, but to allow the right project to move forward,” Stratton said.

He said he’s not strictly opposed to this proposal or others. He said his bill, which hasn’t been made public yet, is intended to create more transparency around whatever happens to the lake.

Ducks in Utah Lake
Emily Means
Utah Lake provides habitat for millions of migratory birds.

What Stratton said he wants to see is the very best version of Utah Lake — something he can enjoy with his grandchildren.

“I would look forward to someday being able to go have a fun day, catching some trout on Utah Lake,” he said. “My vision is that the lake will be able to be a source of family togetherness and memories that are created in a wonderful way.”

The project has just started the federal assessment process. Benson — with Lake Restoration Solutions — said that will take upwards of two years, and there will be plenty of room for public input along the way.

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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