Utah is building the largest artificial islands in the world
Utah may soon become home to the largest artificial island project in human history.
The Utah Lake Restoration Project is a $6.4 billion project, including $2.2 billion dedicated to dredging Utah Lake, deepening the lake by seven feet, and using the leftover sediment to engineer artificial islands in the center of the lake.
According to the project’s website: “a combination of interconnected challenges has contributed to the degradation of Utah Lake. The Utah Lake Restoration Project is a comprehensive conservation project that will restore the lake to a much more clean, clear, and safer state.”
The islands will include a combination of parks, beaches, trail systems, residential areas, and business districts. According to a proposal put forth by the project: “Islands are the economic engine that attracts the private funding for the $6.4 billion conservation investment.”
Representative Brady Brammer of the Utah House of Representatives sponsored the bill that would make this project possible. At the 2021 Utah Lake Symposium, he explained that with two or three deaths on Utah lake each year, he hopes this project improves the safety of the lake.
“One of the things we deal with on the lake is people don’t realize how big it is,” Brammer said. “It’s a very turbid lake, and the wind patterns have an impact on the sediment and stir it up quite a bit. To some degree, islands can act as a windbreak and help to quell some of the turbidity. So that can increase the safety on the lake a little bit.”
Julie Fullmer, mayor of Vineyard, one of the many cities that border Utah Lake, spoke about the ways she anticipates the islands impacting the local economy. “If it was done well, it might make the wind cycles better for people who are living there,” she said. “It might raise the values of the houses along the lakeshore. I think it would probably draw more businesses toward the area because if you were making those islands more accessible for the lake users, it would draw people to a destination spot.”
Despite these benefits, the project has met with some pushback from community members. A petition to stop the project has over 460 signatures and claims the project is both impossible and destructive. The petition quotes Dr. Sam Rushforth, Dean of UVU College of Science, Emeritus, who stated: “The ‘restoration’ of Utah Lake as presented by the developers is not possible. [It] would in effect destroy the ecology of the lake and potentially harm much of its watershed.”
Professor of Plant and Wildlife Sciences, Ben Abbott agrees with the impossibility of the project. He stated, “It is very common for developers to underestimate the technical challenges and economic costs of projects they are pitching… The world’s largest dredged island is the Kansai International Airport, which was built in Osaka Bay in Japan. The island is around 2,500 acres. It took 23 years to plan, permit, and build, costing around $20 billion. Despite careful engineering and environmental surveys, when they began building on the island, it sunk 27 feet into the sediment. The Utah Lake islands would be 20,000 acres: 8-times larger than Kansai island. Additionally, the bed of Utah Lake is unconsolidated marl—which has much less structural integrity than the Holocene clay in Osaka Bay.”
Abbott has been an outspoken opponent of the Utah Lake Restoration project. In an attempt to show the community the importance of Utah Lake, Abbott put out a call for local photos or artwork that highlight the beauty of the lake. He believes the island project will harm that natural beauty. He argued that the dredging project and artificial islands would destroy the lake’s resilient ecosystem.
According to Abbott: “The unique characteristics of Utah Lake have helped it maintain much of its function despite decades of abuse…This would damage the invaluable ecosystem services the lake freely provides us, including increasing local precipitation, cooling the valley during summer extremes, removing nutrients, providing world-class opportunities for recreation and photography, and creating habitat.”
While the Utah Lake Restoration Project claims the islands will improve water quality, Abbott says otherwise. At the Utah Lake Symposium, Abbot explained: “If you were to split up the lake into multiple basins, especially if you were to substantially deepen the lake—I see almost no scenario where that wouldn’t increase the severity and risk of having these really bad water quality issues, particularly with deoxygenation of the water.”
The project hopes to address any water quality issues through the use of machinery. However, Abbott claims this is not a reasonable solution. He argued: “We have an ecosystem now that’s incredibly resilient, and they’re proposing to change it and make it more vulnerable to the kinds of pressures we’re putting on it and adding a very costly and complicated solution to a problem that they’re creating.”
The Utah Lake Restoration Project calls itself a plan to turn the clock back 150 years on the ecosystem degradation of the lake. Abbott says this statement is based on a claim that the condition of the lake is declining.
“These claims couldn’t be farther from the truth,” Abbott said. “Utah Lake has always been shallow and cloudy. In fact, these are some of the attributes that make the lake so remarkably resilient. Multiple studies have found that Utah Lake’s status is better than most water bodies in the US, and its sediment is not contaminated—it is clean and crucial to the health of the lake. Dredging would cause immense damage to the lake ecosystem while not providing any ecological benefit.”
The legality of the project has also been called into question. Craig Galli, partner at law firm Holland and Hart with expertise in environmental litigation, was invited to speak in a discussion of law and policy surrounding Utah Lake. He quoted the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act 404. According to Galli, these two acts require an exploration of alternatives when discussing potential dredging projects.
Specifically, the Clean Water Act states: “No discharge of dredged or fill materials shall be permitted if there is a practicable alternative to the proposed discharge which would have less adverse impact on the aquatic ecosystem so long as the alternative does not have any other adverse environmental consequences.”
According to Abbott, “There are better, less costly, non-destructive, more natural alternative actions that can and should be undertaken to safely rejuvenate Utah Lake.”
If Abbott is correct about the possible alternatives, the Utah Lake Restoration Project could run into major legal issues before moving forward. As Chicago architect and city designer, Daniel Burnham said, “Make no little plans. They have no power to stir men’s blood.”
The Utah Lake Restoration Project isn’t afraid to dream big. Protecting a piece of our natural environment as large as Utah Lake will require massive initiatives. However, the Utah Lake Restoration Project may have a long way to go before it’s ready for implementation.