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More than a hundred ecologists, engineers and environmental scientists sign letter denouncing Utah Lake proposal

By Ashtyn Asay - | Dec 30, 2021

Isaac Hale, Special to the Daily Herald

Ice accumulates along the eastern shoreline of Utah Lake near the Lindon Marina on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021.

The debate surrounding the fate of Utah Lake continued when an open letter denouncing the Utah Lake Restoration Project, signed by over a hundred ecologists, environmental scientists, engineers, natural resource managers, recreational managers, and environmental lawyers was distributed Thursday.

The letter, which was signed by 109 individuals publicly and eight anonymously, detailed eight concerns that the undersigned shared about the overall implications of the Utah Lake Restoration Project, as well as concerns about the project’s design.

“The lake is on the road to recovery, and we hope that our message of warning will encourage policymakers and managers to continue legitimate restoration efforts and protect Utah Lake,” Ben Abbott, assistant professor of ecosystem ecology at Brigham Young University, wrote in an email to the Daily Herald.

The Utah Lake Restoration Project, a product of Lake Restorations Solutions LLC, is a proposed plan to dredge Utah Lake in order to create islands that would be used for recreational and commercial purposes. LRS claims that this project would result in a cleaner, healthier Utah Lake.

The open letter claimed that LRS has intentionally disregarded available science about Utah Lake, strayed from the methods and principles of ecological restoration and made false claims about its permitting and endorsements, among other things.

“To reassure local and state leaders, LRS has claimed to have endorsement, permitting, or financing from the EPA, Army Corps of Engineers, FFSL, Utah Governor’s Office, Utah Legislature, and the Utah Lake Commission,” stated the open letter. “We have heard from most of these entities, none of which have endorsed the project.”

Jeffrey Hartley, a consultant to LRS, said that the project does have endorsements and support from members of the Utah House of Representatives, but declined to name them. According to Hartley, the Utah Lake Restoration project also has received overwhelming support from the public.

“The overwhelming majority of the Utah County citizens support what we’re doing once they understand what we’re doing… based on research we have done,” Hartley said. “There are activists out there that disparage the project and mischaracterize the project falsely. And when they scare people with bad information, people have concerns about the project. When the public understands the true nature of the project, they will overwhelmingly support it.”

The open letter also cited LRS employment of Robert Scott, the director of planning and design for the Utah Lake Restoration Project, as cause for concern. Scott was previously the general manager of design and planning for the Palm Deira, which was initially slated to consist of four man-made islands off the coast of Deira, Dubai.

“LRS’ chief design director Robert Scott designed the failed ‘Palm Deira’ in Dubai, which appears to be the inspiration for this project. Even with nearly unlimited money from the Sheikh of Dubai, the island developer Nakheel incurred tens of billions of dollars in debt, only completing 1 of 4 planned archipelagos,” stated the open letter. “Even the partial construction of those islands created massive ecological damage including creation of algal blooms, degradation of water quality, erosion of coastlines, and asphyxiation of sea life. The proposed Utah Lake islands would be 14-times larger than the only completed island project in Dubai (Palm Jumeirah).”

According to Hartley, the letter’s criticisms of Scott were unfounded.

“He’s an architect. If an architect designed your house, and the builder and the engineers that… construct what he drew on paper, if they build a house that fails it’s not the architect’s fault,” Hartley said. “He designs like an architect. If a project he worked on failed in the past based on its construction that doesn’t go back to the architect it goes back to the engineering firm and those who built it.”

LRS is beginning the process of applying for state and federal permits in order to get the Utah Lake Restoration project underway, and according to Ryan Benson, CEO of LRS, the company must provide scientific evidence that supports the claim that the project will notably improve the Utah Lake environment in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act.

“Lake Restoration Solutions is applying for federal and state permits that, under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other federal laws, require robust data, environmental modeling and other scientific evidence to demonstrate that what LRS proposes will result in significant environmental improvements to Utah Lake,” Benson wrote in an email to the Daily Herald. “The NEPA process also allows multiple opportunities for the public and every stakeholder who has a concern about the proposed project to give feedback or provide contrary evidence if it exists. We have complete confidence that the NEPA process will identify both the protections and improvements needed for Utah Lake and welcome public input and involvement over the course of the next year.”

According to Hartley, the letter’s criticisms of the Utah Lake Restoration project were premature in the absence of a completed NEPA analysis.

“It’s hard for me to understand how a group of academics would sign their name to a document in advance of seeing a NEPA application, and criticize a proposed project that will have a full NEPA analysis done,” Hartley said. “They haven’t seen it yet, it’s illogical.”

LRS and those who signed the open letter both claim they want what is best for Utah Lake, although it is clear that the members of both groups strongly disagree on what that would be.

“Ultimately, we stand by the science for the water conservation, clean water remediation, and the environmental restoration and enhancement of Utah Lake,” wrote Benson

“In this time of dramatic change, we need evidence-based management and legislation to protect this unique, beautiful, and dynamic lake,” stated the open letter. “Utah Lake has sustained our predecessors and ancestors for thousands of years. It is now our opportunity and responsibility to sustain Utah Lake for future generations.”

One signee of the letter, Andrew Follett, called the amount of confusion over the state law in qustion, “remarkable.” Follett is currently a J.D. candidate at Yale Law School and wrote in an email that, “the 2018 Amendments (H.B. 272) do not affect the legal viability of the islands proposal or any substantive public trust obligations, it just affects the economic considerations for would-be developers.”

To view the full open letter, visit https://pws.byu.edu/utahlakeislands, and more information on the Utah Lake Restoration Project is available at their website https://www.lakerestorationsolutions.com/.

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