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Utah Lake’s environmental problems are so widespread, so ingrained, that solving them will require a massive remodeling of the 150-square-mile lake bed that forms the heart of the Utah Valley, according to supporters of a controversial dredging proposal.
And the only way to fund such an ambitious venture is to create valuable real estate with the dredged material and sell a portion of it to developers, Jon Benson, president of the Utah firm behind the proposal, told reporters a gathering at Salt Lake City‘s Grand America Hotel on Tuesday.
It was the first time since unveiling its bold idea four years ago that Lake Restoration Solutions [LRS] made its specialist consultants, architects and engineers available. The company hosts several such events to address growing opposition to what it calls the Utah Lake Restoration Project.
Critics fear the project is a real estate venture disguised as a restoration, and some of the Utah County cities on the lake’s shores are considering resolutions against it.
Also on Tuesday, the American Fork City Council voiced its doubts in a resolution against HB232, a bill that would create the Utah Lake Authority. This powerful new state agency, overseen by an unelected board, would decide how the lake would be used and developed.
“The dredging of the lake is unnecessary, ecologically risky, very expensive and any islands that might result from such dredging will deface the lake and detract from its aesthetic and recreational value,” the resolution reads. It implored lawmakers to “ensure the restoration of the state’s natural beauty rather than provide a pathway for future dredging and development of the lake.”
This criticism was in line with a variety of concerns from the Utah scientific community, whose researchers say deepening the shallow lake by 7 feet, as the company proposes, could undermine the lake’s natural function and ecological resilience.
But LRS has said those concerns are premature and misplaced.
For starters, Benson said during the presentation, the top priority of the dredging project is the ecological health of Utah Lake; Development is just a way to make it financially viable and half of the 18,000 acres created would be set aside for wildlife, recreation and open space.
In a permit application filed Jan. 6 with the US Army Corps of Engineers, LRS presented detailed plans to dredge one billion cubic yards of lake bottom sediment to be used to build 34 islands. The plan calls for the islands to be built in five phases spread over 15 years, beginning with an archipelago off Vineyard, the small but fast-growing town on the lake’s northeast shore.
Last year, LRS hired global engineering firm Geosyntec Consultants and SWCA Environmental Consultants to design the project and take it through a rigorous analysis, which is now overseen by the Army Corps.
“The sole reason for dredging is to sequester the sediments,” said Rob Annar, a Geosyntec environmental engineer who oversees the project’s water quality components. “You have to put them somewhere. We brought them into these containment areas. By dredging the lake you deepen it and that also changes circulation patterns, reducing the amount of sediment that gets resuspended. So there are several benefits.”
For decades stretching back to pioneering days, Utahns have dumped waste and non-native organisms into the lake, disregarding the environmental consequences that have doomed the lake to harmful algal blooms and rendered its shores unsuitable for wildlife or human enjoyment . Tens of millions are spent each year removing invasive carp and phragmites, restoring wetlands and estuarine habitats, and upgrading wastewater treatment plants.
While the lake continues to suffer, those investments are paying off and its ecology is on the mend, experts say. The once rampant Asian carp, introduced as a food source in the 1880s, no longer dominates the waters and the native June suckers have recovered from extinction.
Benson acknowledged this progress, but these efforts aren’t geared towards the “broad” recovery and improvement his company is striving for.
He emphasized that land creation is a recognized “beneficial use” of dredged material, and cited 70 cases in the United States where this has been done successfully, such as Mission Bay in San Diego, home of Sea World. For a close analogy with the Utah Lake project, he pointed to the ongoing Marker Wadden in the Netherlands, where seven islands totaling 3,200 acres are being built on the Markermeer.
“This is a hypereutrophic [oxygen depleted] Lake near Amsterdam with many of the same issues as Utah Lake,” Benson said. “They saw some of the same pushbacks that we see. There’s a lot of controversy and questions like, ‘What are you guys doing? What is the purpose of this?’ Now that it is being implemented and bringing significant benefits, especially to wildlife. The public is much more excited about it.”
According to Rudy Bonaparte, director of Geosyntec, massive “geotextile” tubes pumped full of dredged sediment are central to the island formation process.
“These are basically tubes of fabric. They are 8, 10, 12, 14 feet in diameter,” said Bonaparte. “The lake sediment is pumped into the pipe, fills it up, is pressurized and water seeps out, and the remaining sediment becomes solid.”
These tubes then form the perimeter of the islands and serve as the foundation.
“On the inboard side, you would lay down and build up your dredged sediment and check it from an engineering perspective, so you end up leaving either an estuary, a recreational island, or a community island,” he said, adding that engineers would locate build the islands so, that they do not liquefy in the event of an earthquake.
Geosyntec has sunk cone penetration test rigs 110 feet at 18 sites one mile from Vineyard where the first phase of the project would take place. The purpose of these tests, according to Bonaparte, is to evaluate the condition of the seabed and sediments to determine their suitability for supporting islands.
“What’s fantastic about the phased approach,” said Klair White, LRS Chief Financial Officer, “is not only that it allows us to work at a pace that respects the need to maintain water levels and not the existing system unnecessarily It also allows us to ensure that each phase is technically and financially feasible on its own.”
The company expects to provide a performance bond to ensure that any damage that may result from the project will be repaired, according to White.
“If there are different ways to do this without development, we’d love to hear about it,” Benson said. “The original plans did not include any development. That’s not our main purpose. Our goal is to make Utah Lake clean and healthy again. That is important to us.”