Sunday, November 28, 2021

Seven problems with the Utah Lake islands proposal

As you may have heard, there is a truly epic project brewing in Utah Valley. In 2017, a limited liability company proposed to build 20,000 acres of artificial islands in Utah Lake, claiming this would somehow help the ecosystem. In 2018, the Utah legislature passed House Bill 272, which opened the door to transferring the lakebed from the people of Utah to a private corporation. Since that time, the lake developers have been solidifying political support and lining up financing, including a $10 million loan guarantee approved by the legislature last year without any public vetting. They are having a major lobbying dinner at the state capitol next week. The company says they are motivated by a desire to restore the lake, describing their project as a “comprehensive restoration.” Here is the full text of their proposal

After interacting with them for years, I have major doubts about their intentions and methods. While there are literally hundreds of ecological, financial, and legal problems with their proposal, I’ve summarized seven of my main concerns below. If you want to dig deeper, check out this new article called “Getting to know Utah Lake.” There are also several op-eds that have been written on this topic, including The present, future and past of Utah Lake in the Deseret News and Keep Utah Lake shallow and wet in the Salt Lake Tribune. If you prefer video format, here is a presentation I gave at the Salt Lake Watershed Symposium earlier this month: Is Utah Lake a Steaming Failure or a Gleaming Success?

Buckled ice on Utah Lake (Justin Lehman)

Problem #1. The project is built on false premises. The developers claim that 1. Utah Lake’s condition is bad and getting worse, 2. The lake needs to be dredged, and 3. The lake used to be deep and clear. These claims couldn’t be farther from the truth. Utah Lake has always been shallow and cloudy. In fact, these are some of the attributes that make the lake so remarkably resilient. Multiple studies have found that Utah Lake’s status is better than most water bodies in the U.S., and its sediment is not contaminated—it is clean and crucial to the health of the lake. Dredging would cause immense damage to the lake ecosystem while not providing any ecological benefit.

Hundreds of science-based restoration projects have put the lake on the road to recovery. Cooperative agreements with farmers and other water users have restored river flow to the lake, and upgraded wastewater treatment plants are decreasing nutrient flows to the lake. Invasive species removal has been effective, reducing carp biomass by 80% and restoring native plants along the lakeshore. The Hobble Creek and Provo River Delta restoration projects have been immensely successful, increasing public access to the lake and improving habitat. In response to these efforts, algal blooms are decreasing, native species are returning, and public use of the lake is on the rise. Thanks to this progress, the native June Sucker was downlisted from endangered to threatened just this year. Why would we make such a drastic change when things are finally going the right direction?

A juvenile June Sucker. This endemic fish went from no reproducing adults in the late 1990s to more than 4,000 spawning in 2021 (Riley Nelson)

Problem #2. Building islands would destroy the attributes that make Utah Lake resilient and reduce ecosystem services it freely provides. The unique characteristics of Utah Lake have helped it maintain much of its function despite decades of abuse. First, about a third of the water that enters the lake evaporates to the atmosphere. This causes the constant formation of calcite (the source of the lake’s beautiful cloudy color), which makes nutrients in the lake unavailable to algae. Second, the water’s cloudiness slows the cyanobacterial blooms that affect most water bodies more often and intensely than Utah Lake. Third, the lake’s shallowness prevents the worst effects of algal blooms when they do occur. In deep lakes, blooms consume all the oxygen in the deep water, which causes fish kills and massive release of pollutants from the sediment.

The islands proposal would destroy all three of these attributes: reducing the lake’s surface area, allowing more light to stimulate algal growth, and creating multiple deep channels in the lakebed. This would damage the invaluable ecosystem services the lake freely provides us, including increasing local precipitation, cooling the valley during summer extremes, removing nutrients, providing world-class opportunities for recreation and photography, and creating habitat. Indeed, the lake is currently a hot spot of biodiversity, providing habitat for nearly 1,500 species, including 10 million fish, 35 million water birds, and 69 kinds of mammals, amphibians, and reptiles. How would a project that directly destroys the resilient qualities of the lake make things better?

Lights reflect off the water while Mount Cascade looms in the background (Chuck Castleton)

Problem #3. This proposal would permanently deface our valley and dishonor the legacy left by our ancestors. Anyone who has hiked Timpanogos or any of the surrounding mountains knows that Utah Lake is the centerpiece of our community. The developers propose to build massive islands housing half a million people in the shape of arches, beehives, railroad spikes, and seagulls. This would destroy views of the lake and make our valley unrecognizable to our ancestors. Before European contact, Utah Lake supported the Timpanogos Nation for generations—we now know that people have been living in this area for more than 20,000 years. When the Mormon Pioneers arrived, fish from the lake saved the settlers along the Wasatch Front during crop failures in 1855 and 1856. After disasters during the Dust Bowl, our ancestors carefully regulated water diversions to make sure Utah Lake would be preserved. Will we honor that legacy or desecrate a lake that so many have worked to protect?

Harvest of June Sucker and other native fish from the shore of Utah Lake in 1855. Courtesy of the June Sucker Recovery history.

Problem #4. The project is very likely impossible. It is very common for developers to underestimate the technical challenges and economic costs of projects they are pitching. The larger the project, the greater the potential for overconfidence. Let’s compare this proposal to similar large projects. The world’s largest dredged island is the Kansai International Airport, which was built in Osaka Bay in Japan. The island is around 2,500 acres. It took 23 years to plan, permit, and build, costing around $20 billion. Despite careful engineering and environmental surveys, when they began building on the island, it sunk 27 feet into the sediment. The Utah Lake islands would be 20,000 acres: 8-times larger than Kansai island. Additionally, the bed of Utah Lake is unconsolidated marl—which has much less structural integrity than the Holocene clay in Osaka Bay.

On the dredging side, the Hudson River Cleanup currently holds the record for the largest freshwater dredging project: 2.7 million cubic yards of sediment removed over 10 years for a cost of $1.6 billion.  According to the island developers, dredging Utah Lake would involve removing 1 billion cubic yards of sediment, making the project 370-times larger than the already enormous Hudson River project.

Despite the truly unprecedented size of this project, the developers are claiming they can do it for $2.6 billion in just 8 years. This seems like either a textbook case of engineering hubris or intentional false advertising. Independent estimates suggest the project could cost $10 to $90 billion while providing no ecological benefit to the lake system.

The Executive Summary from the islands project, showing the size and shape of the proposed work.

Problem #5. The project is very likely illegal and will probably never get permitted. By law and precedent, Utah Lake must be managed according to the public trust doctrine. This legal framework requires the state of Utah to act as a trustee to hold the lake (and other waterbodies) for the benefit of all Utahns—present and future. This doctrine has been challenged multiple times in other water bodies around the state, but the Utah Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court have defended it quite fiercely. This is why the island developers’ first step was to lobby the legislature to change the law. In January of 2018, Representative Mike McKell of Spanish Fork introduced the Utah Lake Restoration Act (H.B. 272), which would allow the state to dispose of sovereign lands in exchange for “comprehensive restoration” of the lake system. Despite the law’s clear constitutional problems and the infeasibility of the island proposal, H.B. 272 passed with overwhelming support in both the house and senate. This law hasn’t yet been tested in court, but if the legislature attempts to transfer large portions of the lakebed to private parties, they would almost certainly be sued.

Previous disputes over Utah Lake and other nearby waterbodies provide a hint of how that might go. In 1990 the Utah Supreme Court ruled that the “essence of [the public trust] doctrine is that navigable waters should not be given without restriction to private parties and should be preserved for the general public for uses such as commerce, navigation, and fishing.”  The court specified that even leasing of these lands can be challenged. A 2019 ruling by the Utah Supreme Court specified that “the abdication of the general control of the state over lands under the navigable waters of an entire harbor or bay, or of a sea or lake. . . is viewed as a gross infringement of the public trust doctrine.”

Even if the project didn’t get tangled in state and federal court, there is still the question of permitting. All such projects are required to do an environmental impact study, which typically takes 10 years or more (this legal panel at the Utah Lake Symposium discussed the law and permitting challenges this project will face).

A juvenile northern harrier learns to hunt near Utah Lake (Travis McCabe).

Problem #6. The project has no scientists on its team. This is one of the strangest and most troubling aspects of this proposal. For any legitimate restoration project, you assemble a team of researchers, engineers, and legal experts to ensure an efficient, effective, and safe process. While there are several engineers and lawyers involved, the team appears to be primarily real estate entrepreneurs. There are no PhD-level environmental or ecological scientists on the team, though their “senior scientist” did earn a master’s degree in biology in 1996. The developers know this is extremely unusual for a project this size because they have been trying to recruit researchers from all over Utah. They have made job offers to several faculty at BYU and even tried to snatch a graduating Ph.D. student from my department to lend some credibility to their proposal.

The fact that no researchers are willing to take their generous salary highlights another particularity about this project: no one in the research or management communities thinks it is a good idea. With most environmental proposals, there is heated debate and disagreement about pros and cons. I have spoken with more than 100 researchers from across the state and beyond, and all of them think this project is a horrible idea. It has dozens of poison pills and no upside for Utah Lake or the people of Utah.

Utah Lake as seen from Mount Timpanogos (Jeff Beck).

Problem #7. The project has shady foreign funding. The developers claim to have $6.4 billion lined up in investments. This money ostensibly comes from Dubai, where the famous Palm Islands were constructed in the early 2000s. Those islands have been both a, ecological and economic failure. They have caused massive erosion of Dubai’s coastline, extensive algal blooms, and widespread asphyxiation of corals and other marine life. Though $6.4 billion is woefully inadequate to complete the described work (see problem 5), it would still make the Utah Lake islands the largest private restoration project in history. More to the point, if they have so much money lined up, why are they still fundraising? Last year, they tried to raise $15 million on the SEC but ended up with only $200,000—potentially from a single investor. They told the state legislature that they had applied for $200 million from the EPA (rejected this fall), which helped them get a $10 million loan guarantee slipped into the Utah state budget last year. Now they are working with a PR firm Halcyon host a series of fundraising events with celebrity concerts costing $1 million.

These kinds of “moonshot” projects with outside investors have been proposed before. Right here in Utah Valley, we flirted with the idea of a ski resort behind Y Mountain for more than 30 years. The investors never showed up and the proposal ended with nothing but bankruptcy and a heap of wasted taxpayer dollars to show for it. These large miracle solutions are always just what they seem: too good to be true. True ecological restoration takes scientific evidence, community engagement, and persistent collaboration. If we allow the island developers to start this project, we may end up with an injured lake and an enormous mess of half-built islands to clean up.

Light from Saratoga Springs reflects off a partly frozen Utah Lake (Mandy Jensen).

So what can we do? The best way to permanently stop this dangerous proposal is to repeal H.B. 272. This is the law that allows the legislature to dispose of our public trust lands in exchange for the islands project. It was passed in 2018 without much opposition or fanfare (coverage here), but it has left the door open for foreign investors to .

A more complicated issue is the Utah Lake Authority bill, which failed earlier this year. A revised version will be considered in the 2022 session starting in January. The bill would create an independent body, similar to the Inland Port Authority, to oversee projects within and around Utah Lake. It is not associated with the islands project, but my concern is that it completely reworks the governance of Utah Lake right when we are making measurable progress. While the revised bill has not yet been made public, I worry that it could threaten the important gains that have been made over the past decade. While increased coordination among stakeholders around the lake could be a plus, the authority could also make modification of the lakebed and surrounding area more likely. Utah Lake has been saved from the costly and damaging alterations that have been made to the Great Salt Lake (diversions, causeways, and artificial bays have resulted in major hydrological and toxicological problems).

Perhaps most importantly, we need to share the positive message of a lake in recovery. Utah Lake is a beautiful and sacred place, and it needs our support and love. We will only convince the legislature and the people of Utah Valley to turn their hearts back to the lake if we can show them its value and central role in our history and future. Please share the Getting to know Utah Lake article with your family, friends, and representatives at the city and state level. Please visit Utah Lake and share its unique beauty with all you know.

Utah, I ask that you please take heed to what the experts opposing this project have to say. Our people and the reeds around this lake give you your name. We stand in favor of restoring the lake to its natural beauty but have to oppose privatizing and desecrating this historic sacred site. 

-Mary Murdock Meyer, Chief Executive of the Timpanogos Nation, August 2021

 Utah Lake Sunset (Preston Holman).

Sign this petition by Conserve Utah Valley and a coalition of community and conservation groups to stop the island developments.

Ben Abbott is a professor of aquatic ecology at Brigham Young University. He has been studying reservoirs, lakes, and river networks throughout Utah and Idaho since 2009. The scientific and legal claims made in this blogpost are based on a synthesis of over 70 studies and reports on Utah Lake, which was published this August: Getting to know Utah Lake.”


  1. Excellent commentary and summary of the situation! The "restoration" and island development as proposed by the developer must not happen, must not be approved. It would be a huge disaster for the lake, for Utah Valley and for all generations.

  2. Your point about the cloudiness of the lake is not well proved. The lake used to be clear until we polluted it and killed off the plant life.

    1. Actually Will, despite the narrative that is communicated in local k-12 schools (in large part to historic misunderstandings) the ecology and mounting scientific evidence of Utah lake and others like it point to a much different story that should be rectified in local school curriculum.

    2. There's a great summary of the most comprehensive paleolimnological study on this question here: Basically, there was a state change in the 60s or 70s where the lake did become more cloudy because of a combination of algal blooms and carp. However, even before then, the lake was not a clearwater or deep lake. The water may have been clear during parts of the year--for example during snowmelt or when the bivalves that used to live in the lake filtered the water--but most of the year, it likely looked similar to what it does now.

  3. Generations of my family have loved Utah Lake. We have seen so many changes happen on and around the lake. It makes me sick that any type of developement like this would even be considered!Our family uses the lake year round for paddleboarding, fishing, bird watching and enjoying the beauty of nature. We always see other families enjoying the lake as well. Developing islands on Utah Lake will destroy it! Can't we just leave our precious lake alone and stop trying to "enhance" it. If developers are allowed to keep taking away from our lakes and mountains there will be nothing left of our beautiful Utah. The developers keep getting richer while taking away from our scenic beauty. STOP this from happening!

  4. Thank you for this helpful information. I plan to send this and my own thoughts to our state legislators as well as the Orem city council (my residence) who ought to weigh in. Could you consider adding your qualifications and links to sources? I think that would be valuable to legislators and others who read this.

    1. Thanks Cissy. I just added my qualifications at the bottom of the article and a link to the scientific report where more than 70 sources are provided.

  5. I wonder why the risk of liquefaction hasn't been raised. It's such a bad idea to put structures out in all that saturated sediment.

    1. This is another important issue, which the developers claim to have solved with their "geotubes"--long plastic socks where they put the dredged sediment to dewater. I don't believe the method has ever been used with a marl sediment such as Utah Lake though.

  6. That's a beautiful picture of the ice-berm after spring break-up. I seem to remember that in the spring of 1984 or 5 There was a mountain of ice driven inland by the wind and piled 12 feet high just north of the steel mill. So how high should we build those islands to get above maximum lake level and ice-jams? How much weight will the lake-bed sediments take before failure. You might go visit the BYU geology department and ask 'em to tell you stories about raising the railroad causeway across the rising Great Salt lake in 1984, and how much it finally cost to get the job done.

    1. Thanks for your comment and recommendation. We have heard from the geology and biology departments about the causeway in Great Salt Lake and a proposed dike/causeway in Utah Lake. The sediment was so unconsolidated, that they estimated they would have to dredge a half-mile-wide band just to get it above water line.

  7. Not a good idea, plain and simple! DO NOT DO THIS UTAH!

  8. I don’t car for the idea of the islands. I do like the idea of dredging. The idea that the lake has always been the level and shouldn’t or can’t be deeper makes no sense. It is as if sedimentation and dams are foreign concepts to the author. Given that there is a dam at the outlet of Utah lake, dredging would deepen the lake and decrease the turbidity of the water and allow for vegetation to take root, producing a clearer lake and potentially more robust fishery and recreation experience. The size of the island is ridulous. Even if they were approved for one (let alone the others). The main one should not be so large. And why not something with a more natural shape? The gaudy shapes of arches is tacky at best.

  9. Thanks for your comment. The sedimentation in Utah Lake is really interesting. The best estimates from lake cores indicate that sediment is accumulating on the lakebed at a rate of 1 to 2 mm a year (about 4 inches a century). The dam at the Jordan River doesn't accumulate much sediment because the larger particles have a chance to settle out near the deltas, but the large dams up Provo Canyon and the small ones in the other tributaries have decreased sediment delivery to the lake. Agricultural and urban activity have made up for that, resulting in a rate that is similar to what was going on before European settlement.

    Here is a nice presentation by Dr. Janice Brahney on the pre-settlement status of the lake:

    And this document gets into the details about the past and present. The "Does Utah Lake Need to Be Dredged" section starting on page 26 might be particularly helpful: