Bill would allow for islands on Utah Lake in exchange for restoration

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A new bill would include building islands on Utah Lake.

In the last several years, the state Department of Natural Resources has made some big changes at Utah Lake — the third-largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi.

“We’ve removed about 80 percent of the carp in the lake,” Mike Styler, director of the Department of Natural Resources, told the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee on Wednesday. “It’s making a difference. We’ve removed much of the phragmites. That’s making a difference.”

But an ultimate solution might be a major project that would involve dredging the entire lake to improve water clarity and storage. It also may involve developing on the lake with islands. Rep. Michael K. McKell, R-Spanish Fork, is sponsoring a bill that would help clear the way for that kind of project.

House Bill 272 would authorize the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands to trade land — or space on the lake for islands — in exchange for executing a project for the comprehensive restoration of Utah Lake. Under the bill, restoration includes:

  • improving water clarity and quality
  • conserving water resources in and around the lake
  • preserving water storage and supply
  • removing invasive plants and animals
  • restoring native fish and other aquatic species
  • increasing suitability for birds
  • improving recreation opportunities

The bill passed through the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee on Wednesday. So next it will be heard on the House floor.

McKell, who sits on the Utah Lake Commission, said he’s heard proposals for significant projects on the lake. “Can you really build a city on the lake? I don’t know. … I’m excited with the proposals. We need a big, big solution on Utah Lake. We need to think outside the box.”

Eric Ellis, the executive director of the Utah Lake Commission, said they’ve been chipping away at the problems on Utah Lake for years, and it’s working. But the lake still has problems, and a private-public partnership may be the solution.

McKell said funding restoration solely with public money isn’t reasonable because costs could be $6 billion to $7 billion.

However, people opposed to the bill say it’s not in the lake’s or public interest.

Dan Potts, an avid fisherman and aquatic ecologist, said improving water clarity and building islands in Utah Lake — “a wind-driven lake” — will cause more problems. That’s because the wind keeps phosphorus from turning into algal blooms. Last year’s algal blooms happened when the weather was extremely calm on the lake and the water clarified.

“I hate to burst everybody’s bubble but cutting wind down with buildings and islands and creating deeper water just does absolutely the opposite,” he said. “We’ll have algal blooms that will be so toxic and smelly, it will be horrific.”

Jeff Salt, director of Great Salt Lake Keeper and Friends of Utah Lake, said the state shouldn’t be held for the public in perpetuity, not traded for a service. Also, the geology of Utah Lake is not conducive to building structures and may present safety issues.

“I’m very concerned about the whole proposal,” he said.

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Amie Rose has more than 14 years of experience writing and editing at newspapers in Utah and New Mexico. She graduated from BYU with a degree in journalism. She lives in Utah Valley with her husband, toddler and crazy dog.

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