Islands in Utah Lake? Maybe, now that a restoration project has been waitlisted for an EPA loan

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Rendering of the finished Utah Lake Restoration Project, photo courtesy of Lake Restoration Solutions

UTAH (ABC4) – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced on Tuesday that the Utah Lake Restoration Project has been waitlisted in the application process for a Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loan. 39 new projects were invited to apply and four others – including the Utah Lake project – received waitlist status.

The Utah Lake Restoration Project aims to rehabilitate the fundamental body of water located near Provo. This will be done by targeting four main issues: the turbidity on the lake, the evaporation that contributes to annual water loss, the poor water quality, and the presence of invasive species and toxic algal blooms in the lake’s waters.

Utah Lake Restoration Project aims to solve these problems primarily by dredging the lake. According to the project’s website, dredging the lake would give the body of water a greater depth and lesser surface area, making the water temperature cooler, and therefore reducing evaporation. Through the dredging process, the team will create a series of manmade islands in the lake, which will be made of the nutrient-rich sediment that’s abundant in the body of water. Not only will the containment of the sediment reduce toxic algal blooms, the team says the placement of the islands will reduce waves on the lake, making the water more clear.

The project also aims to remove invasive species to make room for Utah native plants and animals.  

When the dredging process is complete, some of the manmade islands will be developed into a residential community. The other islands will be reserved as estuaries or recreation islands with boat docks, public beaches, and campgrounds.

“The importance of cleaning up the lake through phased dredging and the strategic engineering of islands to deal with that dredged material, to store and sequester that nutrient-loaded sediment to prevent it leaking back into the lake, it just really can’t be understated, the impact it is going to make on improving water quality and quantity,” says Klair White, chief financial officer of Lake Restoration Solutions, the company behind the project.

The team at Utah Lake Water Solutions hopes that the project will improve Utah’s continued, severe drought, as well as provide recreational opportunities for surrounding residents.

But while on paper, the project seems like a model environmental endeavor, it has been met with criticism from different conservation groups within the local area. A petition titled ‘Don’t Pave Utah Lake,’ is being circulated by an environmental non-profit called Conserve Utah Valley. The petition has been backed by several respected local environmental entities such as the Utah State University Department of Watershed Sciences.

Backers of the ‘Don’t Pave Utah Lake’ movement see the project as primarily development motivated. Ben Abbott, assistant professor of ecosystem ecology at Brigham Young University, is vehemently opposed to the project and believes that Lake Restoration Solutions bears no mind to the ecology of the lake.

“After decades of abuse, restoration efforts are finally bearing fruit. Native fish are returning, algal blooms are declining, and our community is beginning to rediscover the beauty of Utah Lake,” Abbott said in a statement published on the Conserve Utah Valley website. “I’ve met with the proponents of this project and they show no understanding of the lake’s ecology and no respect for its history. They see the lake as nothing more than a real estate deal—an inconvenient wet spot to be filled in and paved,”

Should Lake Restoration Solutions secure a WIFIA loan, they will move forward in earnest, White says. She anticipates the project will move into the application pipeline quickly, following the final submission of some additional materials to the WIFIA team.

White says that Lake Restoration Solutions has already secured a large sum of capital to fund the project, and final WIFIA acceptance would solidify the facts — Utah Lake may become an island community. Loan acceptance could happen within the next six to nine months.

After the loan is secured, the team must obtain a dredging permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This is a lengthy process which White says looks at the project in all aspects, especially environmental impact and feasibility. Securing this permit can take anywhere from 12-24 months.

After that permit is secured, dredging can begin. The dredging process will be done slowly and in five phases — taking about 15 years from start to finish. Once the dredged materials are formed into islands, the new landmasses will need to dewater, consolidate, and stabilize for 6-12 months – depending on the size of the island – before development can begin.

“Each phase is reasonably quick,” White says. “I would say it will be two to three years before we’ll start seeing real progress phase by phase.”

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