Editor’s Note • This story is only available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Please support local journalism.
Utah Lake’s environmental problems are so widespread, so entrenched, that solving them requires massive re-engineering of the 150-square-mile lake bed that forms the centerpiece of the Utah Valley, according to proponents of a dredging proposal controversial.
And the only way to finance such an ambitious undertaking is to create valuable real estate with the dredged material and sell some of it to developers, said Jon Benson, president of the originally Utah company. of the proposal, to reporters at a rally at Salt Lake City’s Grand America Hotel on Tuesday.
It was the first time since unveiling his bold idea four years ago that Lake Restoration Solutions [LRS] provided its expert consultants, architects and engineers. The society is holding several such events to fend off growing opposition to the so-called Utah Lake Restoration Project.
Critics fear the project is a real estate program disguised as restoration, and some of the Utah County towns on the shore of the lake are considering resolutions against it.
Also on Tuesday, the American Fork City Council aired its doubts in a resolution opposing HB232, a bill that would create the Utah Lake Authority. This powerful new state agency, overseen by an unelected council, would decide on the use and development of the lake.
“Dredging the lake is unnecessary, environmentally risky, very expensive, and any islands that may result from such dredging will degrade the lake, harming its aesthetic and recreational values,” the resolution states. He went on to implore the Legislature to “ensure the restoration of the state’s natural beauty, rather than creating a pathway for future dredging and development of the lake.”
This criticism was consistent with a myriad of concerns from the Utah scientific community, whose researchers say deepening the shallow lake by 7 feet, as the company proposes, could undermine natural function and ecological resilience. Lake.
But LRS said those concerns were premature and misplaced.
For starters, Benson said during the presentation, the main priority for the dredging project is the ecological health of Utah Lake; development is just one way to make it financially feasible and half of the 18,000 acres of land created would be set aside for wildlife, recreation and open space.
In a permit application filed January 6 with the US Army Corps of Engineers, LRS detailed plans to dredge one billion cubic meters of sediment from the lake bed, which would be used to build 34 islands. The plan is to raise the islands in five phases spread over 15 years, starting with an archipelago off Vineyard, the fast-growing small town on the northeast shore of the lake.
Last year, LRS engaged global engineering firm Geosyntec Consultants and SWCA Environmental Consultants to design the project and guide it through rigorous analysis, which the Army Corps will now oversee.
“The only reason to dredge is to sequester sediment,” said Rob Annear, a Geosyntec environmental engineer overseeing the water quality components of the project. “You have to put them somewhere. We put them in these containment areas. By dredging the lake you deepen it and it also changes circulation patterns, reduces the amount of sediment that is resuspended. So there are multiple benefits that occur.
For decades dating back to the days of the pioneers, Utahans dumped trash and non-native organisms into the lake with little regard for the environmental consequences, which condemned the lake to harmful algal blooms and rendered its shores unfit for wildlife or human enjoyment. Every year, tens of millions are spent to eliminate invasive carp and Phragmites, restore wetland and estuarine habitat, and upgrade sewage treatment plants.
While the lake continues to suffer, these investments are paying off and its ecology is on the mend, experts say. The once proliferating Asian carp, introduced as a food source in the 1880s, no longer dominate the waters, and the native June sucker has rebounded from near extinction.
Benson has acknowledged these advancements, but these efforts are not geared towards the “complete” restoration and improvement that his company seeks.
He pointed out that creating land is a recognized “beneficial use” of dredged material and noted 70 cases in the United States where it has been done successfully, such as Mission Bay in San Diego, home of Sea World. For a close analogy to 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 Markermeer Lake.
“It’s hypereutrophy [oxygen depleted] lake near Amsterdam with many similar problems to those suffered by Utah Lake,” Benson said. “They’ve seen some of the same pushback that we see. There’s a lot of controversy and questions like, ‘What are you doing? What’s the point of this?’ Now that it’s being implemented and showing significant benefits, especially for wildlife, the public is much more excited about it.
At the center of the island’s formation process are huge “geotextile” tubes that would be filled with dredged sediment, according to Geosyntec director Rudy Bonaparte.
“They are basically fabric tubes. They are 8, 10, 12, 14 feet in diameter,” Bonaparte said. “Sediment from the lake is pumped into the tube, filling it, pressurizing it, and water seeping in, and the remaining sediment becomes firm.”
These tubes then form the perimeters of the islands, serving as a foundation.
“It’s on the inland side where you’d place your dredged sediments, build them, and prove them from a technical standpoint, so that ultimately you’re leaving an estuary, a recreational island, or a community “, he said, adding that the engineers would locate and build the islands so that they do not liquefy in the event of an earthquake.
Geosyntec sank cone penetration test equipment 110 feet deep at 18 sites a mile off Vineyard where the first phase of the project would take place. The purpose of these tests is to assess the condition of the lake bed and sediments to determine their ability to support islands, according to Bonaparte.
“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 to unduly disrupt the existing system, it also allows us to ensure that each phase is technically and financially feasible in itself.
The company plans to put in place a performance bond to ensure that any damage that may arise from the project would be repaired, according to White.
“If there are different ways to do this without development, we’d love to hear it,” Benson said. “The original plans did not include development. This is not our primary goal. Our goal is to make Utah Lake clean and healthy again. That’s what matters to us. »