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State agency calls Utah Lake Restoration project ‘unconstitutional’ and ‘a risk’

A Landsat 8 satellite image of Utah Lake and the surrounding Provo, Utah area, July 30, 2020.
A Landsat 8 satellite image of Utah Lake and the surrounding Provo, Utah area, July 30, 2020.

The proposed Utah Lake Restoration project, which would create a series of islands in the lake west of Provo, could be in jeopardy.

The director of the state’s Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands raised issues with the proposal in a legislative interim committee meeting Wednesday. Jamie Barnes told the Legislative Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Interim Committee the project is “unconstitutional and is not legally sound” because sovereign land could permanently go to a private company.

“I have been advised by our legal counsel that there are material and substantive legal issues with the proposal submitted by Lake Restoration Solutions and that it is detrimental to the state of Utah and the public trust,” she said.

The company’s project proposal wants to dredge the lake and build islands, for native habitats, recreation and residential development. The president of the company told KUER in January the project would “address all of the aspects that are damaging to the ecosystem.”

Under a law passed by the Legislature during the 2022 general session, Barnes’ agency would have to determine the legality and restoration merit of the proposal in a written recommendation to state leaders. Forestry Fire and State Lands’ final report is expected in the next few weeks. A spokesperson for the agency said it’s unlikely to change much from Barnes’ assessment.

The company sent a legal memo for Forestry, Fire and State Lands to review, which is what Barnes addressed in her comments. The proposal also lacks scientific data, she said.

Lake Restoration Solutions did not immediately respond to requests for comment from KUER.

Critics of the project have said it will drastically change the lake and not really do much to restore it. Ben Abbott, an assistant professor of ecology at Brigham Young University, is a vocal opponent of the Utah Lake Restoration project and has been sued by Lake Restoration Solutions for it. He called Barnes’ assessment “hugely positive.”

“As Utah County grows and becomes more urban, these natural areas, such as Utah Lake, become all the more valuable and important to protect,” he said. “So this is a step forward toward a really positive place for our state lands.”

Abbott said this is a promising development, but called the developers “surprisingly resilient.” He wants to see the repeal of a 2018 law that allows proposals like this to be considered.

“We need to focus on … real restoration work, not get distracted by these crazy miracle cures that are too good to be true,” he said.

There have been positive changes to the lake that need to be highlighted, Abbott said, including the downlisting of the June sucker, removal of invasive species and better water quality.

Barnes said the state needs to be more proactive rather than reactive in protecting the lake.

“I think there's a misconception that Utah Lake is getting worse, and I think that depends on who you talk to,” Barnes told legislators. “There's a lot of things that are currently being done on Utah Lake to improve and enhance the quality of the lake.”

Lexi is KUER's Southwest Bureau reporter
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