In Utah’s latest legislative session, bill HB240 was passed, giving the company Lake Restoration Solutions the power to build massive islands intended for real estate development in Utah Lake. If you’re unfamiliar with Lake Restoration Solutions’ goals for the lake, here are some things they have outlined on their website. They hope to conserve water by decreasing the surface area of the lake, improve water quality by removing what they describe as “nutrient loaded sediments,” support ecosystem restoration by restoring water quality, dredge to deepen the lake, use the dredged lakebed to build islands, and finally bring back a “healthy” ecosystem to encourage recreational activities. Despite all these wonderful claims, will it actually work? I asked our local nature expert and environmentalist, Mr. Wilson, why this is a bad idea.
To start, here’s some background information on Utah Lake’s ecosystem: Utah Lake is a freshwater lake, with a shallow lake bed. This is a really important thing to consider with regards to what Lake Restorations Solutions proposes to do. Utah Lake’s water source is primarily the Provo River. The river coming out of Utah Lake is the Jordan River, and that empties into the Great Salt Lake. Once home to an abundance of native fish, such as Bonneville cutthroat trout and June suckers, Utah Lake’s ecosystem became overrun by carp. What carp do is eat and filter mud, like whales. But in doing that, they turn up the sediments in the lake and make it muddier. That turbidity (a term for when there’s high dust content in water, like air quality) blocks light from hitting the bottom of the lake, which then inhibits photosynthesis. This has caused many native plants on the lakebed to struggle and become scarce in the lake’s ecosystem. This has also taken out some of the native fish population. Algae blooms also often plague the lake, adding to the damage the lake’s ecosystem has already experienced.
Here’s three questions about this project, examined further.
1. Will this plan actually help the lake or just make things worse?
In addition to the massive disruption to the ecosystem, construction of these islands could interfere with the ecosystem in many ways. Dredging the lake could improve the circulation of the lake, making the bottom of the lake colder. “Because of how shallow the lake is, pretty much the entire depth of the lake is warm, and that accelerates the algae growth. If you've got a depth of cold water, when the wind blows on the lake, that cold water circulates to fill in the low pressure [upwelling], and it cools down the surface, which could inhibit algae growth,” said Wilson. He also explained that the circulation created by the dredging could re-oxygenate plants that restrict nutrients for the fish. The dredging and construction of the islands is bound to turn up more dirt and pollute the lake further. And if they plan to build housing on these islands, runoff from lawns will also contribute to the toxic algae blooms Utah Lake has become known for, which leads to the next question.
2. Will the lake harbor a comfortable, healthy, and most importantly, desirable community that people will want to visit and live in?
It’s common knowledge that Utah Lake experiences a lot of harmful algae blooms. Mr. Wilson explained that algae proliferate when temperatures get high because of factors such as increased sunlight, which increases the algae’s photosynthesis and metabolism. But the main trigger is additional nutrients (mostly ammonia, nitrogen, nitrate, phosphate). These come down
through the Provo River from pasture runoff. Mr. Wilson also pointed out there are dated sewage treatment plants on the edge of Utah Lake that are releasing water that's high in these nutrients. “It's a little bit like putting lots of fertilizer on your lawn. For the plants that can handle it [in this case the algae in the lake], they'll grow a lot,” Wilson described. But the most alarming thing is some of these algae produce a toxin that is more toxic to humans than botulinum, and botulism is thought to be one of the most toxic things known, including poisons. “When there's an algae bloom … you don't want a person or an animal to come in contact with that water,” Mr. Wilson said. He also explained that building islands would make the lake a still-water lake, inviting pests such as mosquitos into the water. With a massive mosquito problem, the only option left would be to use pesticides, and that can also harm the ecosystem and decrease the desirability of living there. Who wants to live in a place with toxic algae blooms and the reeking smell of pesticides? Mr. Wilson elaborated, “Are you going to want to spray pesticide in neighborhoods like that? Rachel Carson brought this to our attention in Silent Spring when they were spraying neighborhoods and playgrounds and swimming pools, ostensibly to control gypsy moths… She doesn't use the term pesticides. She calls it biocides.”
3. Will this actually work? Is the money worth the investment?
Mr. Wilson isn’t an engineer; however, knowing that the lake is naturally shallow, he predicted that the dredged lake bed would just sink back into its original place. If the islands start sinking, that would be a huge loss of an investment. Judging by previous attempts to build synthetic islands, the chances of it not sinking are very low. One such example is Kansai International Airport, in Osaka Bay in Japan. It took 23 years of planning, $20 billion in construction, and despite careful engineering it ended up sinking 27 feet into the dredged ocean floor. And it was only 2500 acres. Dubai has similar islands, and recent surveys suggest that those are also sinking. With Utah Lake’s island's total price tag totalling $6.5 billion, this isn’t a cheap risk. There’s a chance that this ship, or rather island, might just sink and sink Lake Restoration Solutions into debt. And lastly, if the construction of the islands doesn’t have its desired effect and ends up exacerbating issues like algae blooms or creating a massive mosquito problem, will people actually buy the new land? If it doesn’t end up being marketable, what then?
If Lake Restoration Solutions really wanted to do what its name implies, they would invest $6.5 billion in environmental surveys and efforts to improve the wastewater treatment plants not far from the lake, prevent fertilizer runoff, and restore native fish into the lake. They shouldn’t try to alter the ecosystem more than it already has been altered. If we’ve learned anything from nature, it’s to not make a lake into something it’s not supposed to be. That will only create new issues and harm the lake further. Save the lake, don’t pave the lake.