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On a recent walk along the eastern shore of Lake Utah, Ryan Benson reflected on a technical solution to the long chain of environmental insults that have made the lake surrounded by mountains an ecological basket, largely unusable for humans and animals.

Looking out from Lindon Marina, the site of Lake Utah’s worst algae blooms, he described a vision of many man-made islands created from dredged material. These islands would safely contain the polluted sediments of the lake bed, keeping them out of the water column where they would otherwise feed on the algae known to poison the lake.

“These projects have been carried out in the United States for over 100 years. [Florida’s] The Venetian Islands were created in the 1920s, Balboa Island in San Diego, ”said Benson, a political consultant and lawyer from Utah who recently took over the company behind the controversial proposal. . “There are really good technologies that have developed.

In his new role as CEO of Lake Restoration Solutions, Benson hopes to execute his ambitious plan to dredge 1 billion cubic meters of sediment, lower the lake bed 3-6 feet, and carve those elements into 20,000 acres. new lands. A deeper and less shallow lake would calm the action of the waves which stir up sediment and reduce evaporation. That’s the theory anyway, but would that work?

This project is said to be one of the largest island building projects ever attempted in history and could, according to critics, cause far more damage than benefit to the environment.

“There are almost always scientific disagreements and [water] management community on what to do about the big problems, ”said Ben Abbott, professor of ecology at Brigham Young University. “I’ve spoken to almost 100 experts from across the state and haven’t met any who think it’s a good idea.”

But Benson said his company is organizing the research, data and engineering studies that show island building will not only work, but also clean up the lake and restore miles of habitat. He said he had secured pledges from private investors to cover nearly all of the $ 6.4 billion in project costs, but is now seeking buy-in from government agencies.

Great demand

In an application submitted almost three years ago to the Forestry, Fire and Crown Lands Division, Lake Restoration Solutions, or LRS, is seeking title to the lake bed and sediment-formed islands. dredged. Currently, the bed is “sovereign” state land which is supposed to be managed in the public domain.

Called Arches Utah Lake, the man-made islands would then be used for residential development connected to the shore and to each other via a system of causeways.

In return, the project would restore the ecology, habitat and water quality of the third largest freshwater lake in the West, and transform it into a recreational destination comparable to Lake Payette in Idaho, in Coeur d’Alene and other large mountain lakes in the region, according to Benson. .

In 2018, the Utah legislature ordered state land managers to review the company’s proposal, but LRS has yet to file an application or associated documentation with state or federal agencies that would review the project.

Benson said the company planned to submit a “notice of intent” in the coming weeks with the US Army Corps of Engineers, which would begin a federal review under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. He pledged a public rollout, making LRS experts and engineers available to explain the project and the research to support their claims that building an island would benefit the environment and the public.

He said he couldn’t identify who is providing financial support.

“These commitments are in place. These are commitments signed with some of the world’s largest environmental and impact-focused funds, ”said Benson. “A lot of these relationships are confidential, so we need to be given permission before we can discuss them.”

Meanwhile, more than three years after assembling a team to review the request, the state licensing agency has yet to receive anything to move the project forward.

“We haven’t audited any of these financial statements,” said Jamie Barnes, director of the FFSL. “We haven’t received anything other than what’s on our website and that’s just the proposal.”

A big dumping ground

The people of Utah have used the lake as a toilet for decades, dumping sewage, agricultural runoff, industrial waste and invasive fish into its waters. As a result, algae sometimes explode into toxic blooms and invasive grasses clutter its shores. Had it not been contaminated, Lake Utah would likely be a natural gem, home to diverse populations of migratory birds, wildlife, and native fish.

Instead, its murky waters are infested with invasive non-native plants and fish, especially carp that had been deliberately introduced in 1883. It’s no wonder that few people visit Utah’s namesake lake in the United States. heart of its second most populous county.

Benson and his partners want to change that, but doubts remain about their ability to do so.

At the heart of the project is the deepening of the shallow lake by sucking 1 billion cubic meters of sediment from the lake bed.

“The main goal is to remove total dissolved solids… but also phosphorus, nitrogen, stuff,” Benson said. “He’s in the sediment until a wave event suspends him. Then it’s in the water column and it causes algae blooms.

Its plan is elegantly simple: to permanently sequester contaminated sediments in artificial islands.

“Think about 500,000 tonnes of total dissolved solids,” Benson said. “A lake cannot naturally process this amount of biological material.”

Imperfect sales work?

Abbott argues that Benson exaggerates the magnitude of the nutrient problem on the one hand and overestimates the benefits of dredging on the other.

Polluted sediment from Lake Utah is concentrated in Provo Bay, where agricultural runoff entered through the Provo River, and along the northeastern shore where sewage and later treated sewage was discharged, according to Abbott, who hosted a forum last month to voice concerns about the project.

“It’s a tiny fraction of the sediment in the lake that’s polluted the way they claim,” he said. “There is no ecological benefit to dredging the main body of Lake Utah because the sediment is not polluted. “

According to Benson, LRS is performing an analysis of the lake bed to determine the true extent of nutrient contamination.

Regardless, Abbott and others suspect that dredging could even worsen algal blooms and disrupt the lake’s ecology in other ways. This is because a deeper lake could ensure that the natural nutrients end up nourishing the flowers. The lake bed contains background levels of nutrients that predate the arrival of the settlers, according to Abbott. These nutrients are not available to the algae because the lake water is generally rich in oxygen and the nutrients remain bound to the mineral particles.

“You can mix the water and these nutrients are not released. It’s not available for algae, ”Abbott said. “However, once you have a deep lake, you get areas where oxygen is drawn. Then you get a massive release of nutrients. It is a well-established phenomenon that occurs in man-made reservoirs around the world. “

“Beneficial” uses

The other big technical problem that LRS has to solve is where to put a billion meters of mud? Transporting it for disposal in the Western Desert is not an option. Again, Benson’s solution is simple: create new land.

“The new gold standard is to use the material advantageously and the recommended uses of it are threefold. One concerns habitat restoration. The second is for beach replenishment, or you could say recreation, ”Benson said. “And then the third is for development.”

Arches Utah Lake would include all three uses by enclosing the sediments in “geotextile” tubes that would form the foundations of the islands.

“Some of these islands will be just for recreation,” Benson said. “Some will be conservation tools, estuaries or barrier islands. “

And about half will support residential development that could accommodate up to half a million people, according to project founder Ben Parker. The prospect of a sprawling suburb in the lake alarms many environmentalists, but without development the project would not be economically feasible.

Real estate sales are what will pay for the project.

Government financial assistance

The company also seeks loans of unspecified amounts from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) through the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act. This federal program finances billions of low-interest loans to support projects that benefit water quality.

According to the EPA, Lake Restoration has submitted letters of interest to participate in 2020 and 2021. The company was not invited to apply after the first application, while its second application is still under review, according to the EPA. agency spokesperson Barbara Khan.

In the meantime, the last session of the Utah Legislature approved $ 10 million in loan guarantees for the project without any of the usual public audits for such funding requests. These guarantees must be administered by the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunities, or Go Utah.

To get the money, LRS has to go through the Industrial Assistance Fund, but the company has yet to submit any documents, so that money has not yet been committed, according to the deputy director of Go Utah, Benjamin Hart.

“If there is ever a feeling that this project is going to collapse or not going to be worth taxpayer dollars, we are not absolutely obligated to make that investment,” Hart said.

Benson said the guarantees are intended to secure the necessary funding for the pre-construction phases of the project.

“This is an important signal from our state partners of their commitment to restore Lake Utah,” he said. “This money actually stays in the state coffers. “

Unless, of course, the project goes bankrupt. In this case, the $ 10 million goes to creditors and the state can start cleaning up Utah Lake the old fashioned way again.

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Mary Cashion

The author Mary Cashion