BYU environmental advocates take stand against Utah Lake development

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BYU environmental advocates are pushing back against a proposal to dredge the floor of Utah Lake and construct several large islands. (Brigham Tomco)

Local advocates with BYU ties are working to bring awareness to a 2018 proposal to develop Utah Lake and the repercussions that could come from its enabling legislation.

The proposal, engineered by Lake Restoration Solutions LLC and called “The Utah Lake Restoration Project,” contains plans to dredge the floor of Utah Lake over the course of several years, making it deeper, clearer and supposedly healthier.

From the dredged material, Lake Restorations Solutions intends to construct several massive islands which will transform Utah Lake into an attractive destination for wildlife enthusiasts, tourists and residents, according to the company’s website.

The project is framed as a solution to Utah’s rapidly growing population and a way to improve what the proposal calls “a broken ecosystem,” referring to the lake’s rampant algae blooms and the presence of invasive species.

However, despite its stated goal of restoring Utah Lake, the proposal has been met with opposition from some in the BYU community.

BYU ecosystem and ecology professor Benjamin Abbott specializes in aquatic ecology. He has been one of the proposal’s most vocal critics.

Although Abbott grew up in Utah County, his research has only centered on Utah Lake since 2018 when his watershed ecology class chose to focus on the lake for their semester-long project.

His class’s study of the lake coincided with the announcement of the Utah Lake Restoration Project. As Abbott researched the proposal, he became increasingly concerned.

“The developers call this the Utah Lake Restoration Project. But it has nothing to do with ecological restoration,” he said. “It’s a radical reengineering of the lake system.”

This “radical engineering” is likely to cause more harm than good, Abbott said: “When you make major changes, there are always unintended consequences.”

Feeling a personal responsibility to preserve Utah Lake, Abbott said he has worked tirelessly to inform policymakers about the ecological impact of the restoration project and persuade them to amend a 2018 bill, H.B. 272. This bill has paved the way for projects such as the “Utah Lake Restoration Project” to be considered, accepted and given land by state agencies.

Abbott is not the only one to devote an enormous amount of time to this cause. Andrew Follett, a former BYU student who grew up in Pleasant Grove, has also become increasingly invested in this effort since taking Abbott’s 2018 class.

At the time he took Abbott’s class, Follett was studying environmental science. However, the semester-long focus on Utah Lake, including the legal technicalities that made it vulnerable to exploitation, persuaded Follett to change his course and instead study environmental law.

Now a law student at Yale University, Follett is better positioned to make change back home.

“Going to law school has provided me the tools to more meaningfully engage with both the legal ramifications of the island’s proposal in the first place, and second, in the process of sort of affecting Utah law,” Follett said.

Follett and Abbott are working with state legislators to substantively amend the Utah Lake Restoration Act. The amendments would clarify the definition of restoration, make the process of obtaining public lands like Utah Lake more rigorous and “close the loophole so irresponsible and risky projects like this won’t be possible in the future,” Abbott said.

Some BYU community members are fighting against legislation to dredge the floor of Utah Lake. (Brigham Tomco)

Students on campus are also playing an influential role in bringing awareness to this issue. Political science student Adam Johnson has been a key figure in starting and managing Conserve Utah Valley, a local nonprofit which, according to the organization’s website, is “committed to protecting and sustaining the treasured canyons, foothills, open spaces, and waters of Utah Valley.”

Conserve Utah Valley formed in 2020 in response to the proposed development of Bridal Veil Falls. The organization has become an influential force in local politics where they organize efforts to preserve the natural resources Utahns love most.

“What we’re mainly trying to do is just educate people,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of misinformation right now that’s floating around about what this proposal to build islands on Utah Lake would actually entail. And we want to help clear all that misinformation up so people can make a good, educated choice about what the actual effects of doing this would be.”

Abbott, Follett and Johnson all mentioned ways BYU students can get involved.

A Utah Lake Summit will be Tuesday, Jan. 11, in the UVU Science Building Auditorium at 6:30 p.m. The summit is hosted by Conserve Utah Valley and Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, and aims to educate the public on Utah Lake’s ecological importance and the negative consequences likely to result from the proposed development.

“I think it’s the most important meeting or event about Utah Lake this entire year,” Abbott said. “It’s going to show the legislature that we are serious about wise and conservative management of this incredible ecosystem that we’re privileged to live in or by.”

Students can also visit dontpaveutahlake.org, a branch of Conserve Utah Valley, where they can sign a petition to “join the call for meaningful change in the 2022 Utah State Legislative Session.”

But maybe the most important thing students can do to get involved and form a connection with Utah lake is, according to Abbott, to visit it.

Visit utahlake.org to learn more.

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