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Part 2: Fight Over the Future of Utah Lake

Sounding the alarm:

Dr. Ben Abbott is an aquatic ecologist who grew up in Orem, near Utah Lake. After completing his B.S. at Utah State University and Ph.D. at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, he worked as a post-doctoral fellow for the French government studying lakes, streams, and groundwater. Ben returned to his hometown in 2017 to take a job as a professor of ecology at Brigham Young University. His research focused on how land use and climate change around Utah Lake was affecting water quality and overall lake health.

When the news broke about LRS’ restoration project, Ben’s Watershed Ecology class decided to use the proposal as a case study about aquatic ecosystem management and restoration. To raise awareness about ongoing restoration work and the lake’s recovery, the students created a citizen science project called the Utah Lake Collaborative that included multiple public events about the lake and an eventual scientific publication.

After reading the proposal and meeting with LRS’ leadership, Ben concluded that this was a high risk and poorly planned project. According to Ben, the project could permanently harm the lake by altering the natural characteristics that create its resilience. Rather than reengineering the lake to be something it never was, Ben proposed to enhance the traditional restoration work that was starting to bear fruit. He began publishing op-eds and speaking out against LRS, warning that their project could have immense and long-lasting ramifications if it were even started.

In the summer of 2021, Ben helped organize the first Utah Lake Symposium, which brought together environmental lawyers, engineers, and managers to discuss restoration progress and problems. Later that fall, he wrote a blog post about the project and sent a letter of warning to the legislature, signed by 117 lake experts. LRS objected to several of the statements Abbott made, which became the grounds for their lawsuit against him.

Protecting the project

Jon Benson took over as the president of LRS in 2020. Born and raised in Utah, Jon grew up in the outdoors. He was very familiar with Utah Lake and even met his wife wakeboarding there. Thanks to their fond experiences, Jon knew Utah Lake had potential. He also recognized the problems it faced, including a bad reputation. Locals wore shirts that said, “Ski the Scum,” referring to the lake’s occasional algal blooms. Indeed, Jon and his wife had eventually stopped recreating on the lake, instead using the state’s artificial reservoirs for recreation. Jon had experience running businesses and working with investors. The LRS project seemed like an ideal opportunity to combine his expertise and personal passion.

Jon wasn’t surprised when the project got pushback. Any new endeavor—and especially a large-scale project like this—will have detractors. In fact, Jon said that the project welcomed criticism, writing, “Critique often leads to improved plans, and we’ve already made significant modifications based on insightful feedback. We believe that kind of collaboration yields the best outcome.”

LRS planned to roll out a PR campaign in early 2022 to solidify support with the legislature and public. LRS would use TV ads, radio spots, and even billboards along the freeway to get the word out. By then, the project planned to have finances lined up through the Environmental Protection Agency and the permitting in process with the Army Corps of Engineers. There was even an event planned at the Utah Capitol where the governor’s office would announce LRS as the state’s official partner in restoring Utah Lake.

Everything seemed to be going to plan, until Ben got involved. From Jon’s perspective, Ben and his group of activists were unfairly attacking the project before it was even off the ground. Though they hadn’t wanted to make things personal, LRS finally decided to sue Ben for defamation, which they hoped would reset the discussion and create a level playing field for the evaluation of their project.

LRS Promo Video
LRS Promo Video (link below)

LRS Promo Video

Grassroots Advocacy: The Utah Lake Conservation Coalition

Jon and Ben weren’t the only ones fighting over the future of Utah Lake. Throughout Utah County, concern had grown considerably since the news of an island city larger than Salt Lake had come out. Several cities were considering resolutions opposing the island project and state and federal agencies were following the development closely. Perhaps most importantly, a local conservation group called Conserve Utah Valley (CUV) had taken up the cause of stopping the project.

On November 29th, 2021, CUV held an emergency meeting with community groups and concerned citizens from across the valley. They had learned that LRS was planning a “meet the experts” event at the state capitol on December 7th. CUV had heard that the governor’s office might be making an announcement, potentially committing the state to the LRS project financially and legally.

 About 50 people showed up at CUV’s meeting on the 29th, including representatives from a dozen community conservation groups. They decided to form a Utah Lake Conservation Coalition to oppose the island project and support traditional restoration work on the lake. They discussed a public education campaign that was eventually dubbed “Don’t Pave Utah Lake.”

CUV wanted to get the public on their side to stop the island project and support long-term conservation. They consulted with their local state representative, Keven Stratton, who recommended hosting a summit about Utah Lake to bring all sides to the table in a public forum. Stratton and CUV had worked well together the previous year on another conservation issue. Their success then brought the team at CUV together and showed what the power of citizen voices can do.

CUV Video

Facing off

On January 11th, 2022, the same day that Ben found out he was being sued by LRS, Jon and Ben faced off for the first time publicly. The stakes were high for both sides. Jon knew that public and political support for LRS’ project depended on the next few months. Ben knew that the future of the lake and a $3 million lawsuit depended on what happened next.

By 7pm, hundreds of citizens, community leaders, managers, and scientists had gathered at Utah Valley University and online to learn about the lake. Representative Stratton and CUV’s director Craig Christensen welcomed the audience and explained that they wanted to bring clarity and civility to this important community issue.

Ben set the stage with a presentation about the lake’s recent recovery. Algal blooms were down, the June Sucker had recovered from 400 to 50,000, and the public was rediscovering the lake. Rather than abandoning the incremental and effective restoration work of the past few decades, Ben proposed that Utah Lake needed greater funding and coordination to expand ongoing projects.

When Jon took the stage, he and his lobbyist Jeff Hartley told a different story. They explained how their project was motivated by a desire to restore the lake. Their work would remove nutrient-rich sediments and allow comprehensive restoration through real estate development that was too expensive for taxpayers. Their project would transform Utah Lake from a neglected and degraded ecosystem into a global attraction. Jeff called their critics liars, but no one mentioned the lawsuit. They announced that they had submitted a detailed technical proposal to the Army Corps of Engineers, which would start a years-long permitting process.

Reflection Questions

  1. How did the project proponents and opponents frame the Utah Lake issue?
  2. What are the points of agreement and disagreement about the problems and potential solutions facing Utah Lake?
  3. What are some possible explanations for how different stakeholders can see the same issue so differently?

The legal and political battle heats up

Several days after the Utah Lake Summit, the lawsuit went public. The community was in shock that things had escalated so quickly with such a large lawsuit. While there were doubtlessly people on both sides, it seemed that most individuals and groups were behind Ben and his family. CUV started a legal defense fund, which quickly raised tens of thousands of dollars. Two law firms stepped up and agreed to take the case pro bono because of its free speech and environmental implications.

Ben Abbott at the Lindon Marina

On February 1st, Ben held a press conference on the shoreline of Utah Lake. It was a cold, blustery morning, but major news outlets and several dozen supporters showed up. His lawyers explained that LRS’ lawsuit was a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP). SLAPP suits are illegal in Utah and many states, which allowed Ben to countersue LRS for attorney fees and damages.

A week later, CUV hosted a rally outside the Utah State Capitol to ask legislators to repeal HB 272, the bill that created the pathway for LRS’s island proposal. They started a petition, which quickly gathered 10,000 signatures supporting repeal of HB 272.

Decker Westenburg Rally crowd.png

On their side, LRS had rolled out their public relations campaign. There were pro-island billboards on the freeway, paid radio and TV spots, and a dinner for legislators at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City. With so much riding on the outcome of the legislative session, Jeff Hartley and LRS’ other lobbyists were working overtime to help lawmakers understand the benefits of the project and the costs of stopping it.

Reflection Questions

  1. What is defamation, and how does it relate to free speech?
  2. What parts of the Utah Lake battle took place in the public eye, and what parts were behind closed doors?
  3. How do public events and media coverage influence public opinion? Why does public opinion matter in a case like this? If you want to dig deeper, you can find a compilation of media coverage of the islands battle in the supplementary information.

The Battle Over Public Perception

Over the next few months, both island proponents and opponents worked hard to portray themselves as being backed by the majority. First, LRS hired a political polling firm to conduct an opinion survey about Utah Lake. Their results found that 66.6% of Utah County residents supported the Utah Lake Restoration Project and that Utah Lake had a bad reputation. They published a press release on the results to try to take control of the narrative.

Survey Results from LRS Poll

The project opponents said that the survey was biased because of how the questions were phrased. CUV conducted their own social media polling using questions that they felt were more neutral, and got a very different response. 90% of Utah Country residents opposed the island project, including at least 77% of each of the eight cities where polls had been conducted.

Survey Results from CUV Poll

Reflection Questions

  1. How does actual and perceived public opinion change the dynamics in a conflict like this?
  2. How much do surveys like this seek to measure public opinion versus influence it?