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Guest: ‘Bear Service’ at Utah Lake

By Ben Abbott and Don Jarvis - Special to the Daily Herald | Dec 2, 2021
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Ben Abbott
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Don Jarvis

In Finland, there’s a phrase to describe an offer of help that ends badly — “bear service.” Think of a bear offering to help in a china shop.

Some private real estate developers are now offering “bear service” that will not turn out well. They propose to save Utah Lake by building islands from lake-bottom sediment, thus drastically changing the lake into something it never was. They then plan on housing up to half a million people on the artificial islands.

The developers’ plans — called the Utah Lake Restoration Project — intend to solve Utah Lake’s problems, including algal blooms, chemical pollution, cloudy water, invasive species, and evaporation of scarce water. Let’s examine those issues and what the latest science says.

PROBLEMS EXAGGERATED

Algal blooms on Utah Lake do occur, as they do on two-thirds of other fresh-water lakes worldwide. However, BYU researchers report that overall algal blooms in Utah Lake have decreased over the past 35 years, and satellite imaging indicates that Utah Lake suffers less than do most other Utah water bodies. It is unclear how building islands would reduce algal blooms.

Chemical nutrients coming into the lake are indeed a problem that has been significantly reduced as surrounding cities have improved their wastewater treatment. More work needs to be done, but what about those future island dwellers’ sewage? And lawn fertilizer they may use?

Cloudy water (turbidity) is indeed a factor in Utah Lake, and it always has been because of the shallow depth and high evaporation. That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun on it with sail boats, power boats, water skis, jet skis, canoes, kayaks, paddle boats — you name it.

And the turbidity actually reduces the length and frequency of algal blooms by reducing the sunlight that energizes the cyanobacteria which cause the blooms. The developers intend to clarify Utah Lake’s water, which would actually lead to an increase in algal blooms.

Invasive species (trash fish) do exist in Utah Lake, along with sport fish. The developers plan to poison all lake fish — sport and trash — in what would be the largest piscicide, or fish killing, treatment in history. The carp introduced by Utah pioneers did increase the lake’s turbidity because unlike our threatened native June Suckers, the carp eat plants that cover and protect the lake bottom.

The good news is that the Utah Department of Natural Resources is removing millions of pounds of invasive carp per year, which has reduced their numbers by 75%. Meanwhile, our native June Sucker is rebounding, and the US Fish & Wildlife Service has removed it from the “endangered species” list. Carp reduction seems like a far more sensible solution than the developers’ plans to just kill everything.

Evaporation of scarce water is listed by the developers as a problem which they intend to fix by reducing the total area of Utah Lake with their artificial islands.

However, a recent BYU Utah Lake Symposium report states that this evaporation is not a problem but an essential benefit, part of the local water cycle, in which “landlocked areas like ours receive more than two-thirds of their precipitation from upwind evaporation and transpiration from land and lakes. Second, this evaporation increases local humidity and decreases temperature …”

It is true that we are going through a serious, long-term drought, but unlike the Great Salt Lake, the level of Utah Lake has been stabilized and increased by intelligent upstream management, which gives the Great Salt Lake reliable input via the Jordan River. That and water conservation are our best bets, and building islands in the lake seems likely to cause more water problems than it solves.

GOOD LEGISLATION AND BAD PRECEDENTS

This year, many residents of Utah County and several Provo legislators sprang effectively to the defense of Bridal Veil Falls when it was threatened by private development. The public consensus on that defense was uniformly positive.

However, in 2018 our legislators passed HB 272, which allows sale of part of Utah Lake’s bed to a private developer if certain conditions are met. Since the lake and its bed are held in public trust by the state of Utah, this seems problematic. We hope that our legislators will be as vigilant about protecting Utah Lake as they were about Bridal Veil Falls.

Developers of the Utah Lake Restoration Project often refer to the precedent of artificial islands in Dubai, part of the oil-rich United Arab Emirates. They do not mention that construction of those islands has resulted in enormous environmental problems or that several of the islands are actually sinking back into the sea.

Those behind the Utah Lake Restoration Project may have good intentions, but it sounds like what the Finnish people would call “bear service,” destined for disaster.

Don Jarvis is a Provo environmental volunteer and a retired BYU professor. Ben Abbott is an ecologist in the BYU Department of Plant and Wildlife Sciences.

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