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Part 1: Utah's Most Controversial and Misunderstood Lake


“This is an action for defamation and false light concerning Defendant Abbott’s 
repeated false statements about Lake Restoration and the Utah Lake Restoration Project.”

This is the first line of a $3 million lawsuit that arrived at Ben Abbott’s home on January 11th, 2022. He was preparing to present at the Utah Lake Summit about the very body of water he had just been sued for defending. His wife opened the envelope, read the accusations, and began to fear for their future.

With no time to go home and read the lawsuit himself, Ben headed to the summit and gave his presentation. He began with a review of the history of Utah Lake and its recent recovery. Later, the audience heard from Lake Restoration Solutions, the group suing Ben.

 Nobody in attendance knew what had just happened. Everything seemed fine, but the controversies around Utah Lake were already boiling over.

How did we get here?

Utah Lake is one of the most iconic yet complicated landscape features in the western US. Beautifully nestled in a mountain valley, Utah Lake receives water from a watershed of nearly 3000 square miles. Like most lakes in the U.S., Utah Lake is experiencing eutrophication (over fertilization from urban and agricultural runoff), which causes occasional algal blooms and lake closures.

Utah Lake, along with Great Salt Lake and Lake Sevier, are remnants of Lake Bonneville, a massive inland sea the size of Lake Michigan that covered this area from 30,000 to 12,000 years ago. After a flood in about 13,000 years ago, Lake Bonneville began to dry up, leaving these three large Utah lakes. For about 5,000 years, Utah Lake has been close to its current 4,500’ elevation above sea level. Analysis of the lake sediment shows that Utah Lake has always been shallow.

Humans first arrived in this area at least 20,000 years ago, before the draining and drying of Lake Bonneville. This region was a crossroads for Native peoples, including the Timpanogos, Paiute, Goshute, Ute, and Shoshone groups. In 1850, European settlers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints arrived in the area and began using Utah Lake for its abundant fish, water, and wildlife. When Utah became a state, the importance of Utah Lake was codified, giving it special status in the Utah state constitution. Along with other navigable waters, Utah Lake was given sovereign land status, which requires it to be held for as a permanent public trust for the benefit of all present and future Utahns. Not even the federal government can infringe this protection, though they tried to drill for oil under Utah Lake in the 1970s. They ended up losing that battle in the U.S. Supreme Court, which reaffirmed the right and responsibility of the state of Utah over Utah Lake.

However, no legal statute could protect Utah lake from the ecological consequences of development. As the settler population surged, the lake system started to change. New aquatic species were introduced between in the late 1800s, including black bullhead catfish, carp, and largemouth bass. Originally intended to compensate for overfishing of the June Sucker and other native fish, these introduced species quickly became invasive. Plant invaders were soon affecting the lake as well, with phragmites, Russian olive, and salt cedar encroaching on native plant communities in and around the lake.

Perhaps the darkest period for Utah Lake came in the 1930s. During the Dust Bowl, which affected much of North America, excessive pumping from Utah Lake caused the lake the dry up. The lake level dropped 12 feet, reducing the spectacular desert lake to small ponds and mudholes. This devastated the surrounding agriculture but did cause a shift in thinking towards the lake. Conservation measures were put in place to ensure that the lake would never go dry again.

In the 1960s, another problem emerged. Decades of nutrient pollution caused the lake to experience an ecological state change. Algae and cyanobacteria, which thrive in over fertilized waters began to choke out the reeds, cattails, and other native vegetation. In response, cities and farmers around the lake began implementing wastewater treatment to clean up their runoff to the lake. The Clean Water Act in 1972 brought additional resources to monitor and protect the water quality of Utah Lake and all the nation’s waterbodies.

Conservation and restoration efforts kicked into high gear in the 1980s when the June Sucker—one of the last surviving native fish—was listed as an endangered species. June Sucker populations had dropped precipitously due to the cumulative effects of water diversions, pollution, and continued introduction of exotic species. When the June Sucker was listed as endangered in 1987, there were only a few hundred of the fish remaining in the lake. The June Sucker’s endangered status led to greater funding and the coordination of restoration efforts involving regulators, water users, landowners, cities, wastewater facilities, and fisheries across the state.

Since 1999, when the June Sucker Recovery Implementation Program started, there has been substantial progress on Utah Lake. Invasive fish and plants have been controlled, and algal blooms have begun to decline. Despite these positive restoration achievements, visitation to the lake still hasn’t recovered. Greater news coverage of algal blooms led the public to believe that the problem was getting worse. The disconnect between public perception and the actual ecological recovery of the lake created a sense of frustration that nothing seemed to be working.

Utah Lake

Reflection Questions

  1. Why does the ecological degradation of Utah Lake matter?
  2. What physical and cultural dynamics contributed to the lake's decline?
  3. What kinds of policy and cultural changes led to the lake's turnaround?
  4. How is conservation of Utah Lake a public health issue?

A Comprehensive Solution

In early 2017, the Utah House of Representatives passed a resolution calling for comprehensive restoration of Utah Lake. The bill identified key priorities, including “removing invasive plant species… and restoring native plant species on Utah Lake's shore". The measure passed with near unanimous support from both Republicans and Democrats. Though it was just a nonbinding resolution, it seemed like an important signal of good things to come.

Later that year, an unprecedented plan for comprehensive restoration was unveiled. A company called Lake Restoration Solutions (LRS) was proposing the “largest freshwater restoration project in the United States.” They proposed dredging a billion cubic yards of the lakebed and using the material to create the world’s largest artificial island chain—nearly 20,000 acres of new land. LRS envisioned an island metropolis with as many as half a million residents. According to their proposal, this would alleviate housing pressure in Utah Valley and create a clearer, healthier lake. LRS cited artificial island projects around the world, and pointed out that their team had worked on the Palm Island projects in Dubai.

In November of 2017, LRS submitted their proposal to Utah's division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands (FFSL). They committed to complete their comprehensive restoration project in exchange for a portion of the newly created islands. This innovative “public, private, partnership” or PPP would save taxpayers billions of dollars because it would finance the project by selling the newly created land.

The first thing standing in LRS’ way was that giving away sovereign lands such as the lakebed of Utah Lake was prohibited by state law. The legislature removed that obstacle in 2018, with the passage of the Utah Lake Restoration Act (HB 272). This bill enabled the state to exchange sovereign lands in and around Utah Lake for a comprehensive restoration project, thus creating the legal path necessary for LRS’ proposal to move forward.

Reflection Questions

  1. How would you describe the legal and environmental stakes of a project like this? For example, what are the potential benefits and risks?
  2. If you were a legislator considering this project, how would you evaluate the merits of LRS’ proposal?
  3. What are the pros and cons of the proposed public-private partnership between LRS and the state of Utah?