Will human-made islands improve Utah Lake—or will it become “the Dubai of Utah?”
The controversy over the dredging of Utah Lake wears on, but the restoration project is moving forward nonetheless—even with plans for 18 human-made islands containing thousands of homes.
A federal feasibility and environmental impact study has begun on the Utah Lake Restoration Project, which would dredge sediment from the lake’s bottom and use it to create 34 islands spread across 28 miles of water. At least 16 of those islands would be preserved for wildlife habitat, camping, and recreation.
The US Army Corps of Engineers—which maintains and improves ports, harbors, and nearly 25,000 miles of inland and Intracoastal waterways and coastal channels—will spend 18 to 24 months investigating the project’s impacts, aimed at improving the water quality of the 300-billion-gallon lake. It will then decide whether the project should move forward. The US Environmental Protection Agency is also reviewing the project, as are the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Utah Department of Natural Resources, and the Utah Division of Water Quality.
“As we go through this environmental review process, the number of islands, the placement, and the shape—all of that will be refined,” says Jon Benson, president of Lake Restoration Solutions, a for-profit social enterprise that will lead the cleanup and island development. “As we learn more about the lakebed, we will learn more about the ecology of the lake and what would be optimal for its health.”
Public debate over the fate of Utah Lake has been heated, and Lake Restoration Solutions has even filed a lawsuit against Brigham Young University (BYU) professors who criticized the project and argued that dredging would likely do more harm than good. Ben Abbott, who specializes in aquatic ecology, then countersued LRS.
“The developers call this the Utah Lake Restoration Project. But it has nothing to do with ecological restoration,” Abbott reportedly said. “It’s a radical reengineering of the lake system.”
Earlier this year, news stories cited documents that claim Lake Restoration Solutions and its real estate investors will start dredging next year and offering land sales by 2025, offering lots half an acre to seven acres each at $480,000 an acre. Benson says that information is false.
Benson says dredging has been discussed since the 1980s as a viable option to clean up the lake, but state and local officials have struggled to find a way to pay for it. With dredging costs estimated at $6.5 billion, island communities may be the only viable way to fund the project, Benson says.
“We are open to anyone who wants to come forward with funding that doesn’t involve development,” Benson says. “Lake Restoration Solutions is mission-driven, so our first priority is environmental and public good.”
Today, few people recreate on or near the lake due to toxic algae blooms, which can be dangerous for humans and kill fish and wildlife. The lake’s nine-foot depth is partly to blame, Benson says. The shallow waters make the lake susceptible to wave action that stirs up phosphorus sediment, feeding the algae blooms and turning the lake a vivid green color. The shallow depth also contributes to as much as 20 percent of the lake water—120 billion gallons each year—being lost to evaporation.
“By deepening the lake, you can store more water in a smaller surface area,” Benson says. Improved water quality combined with increased water availability would be an incredible benefit to the state’s water system—and crucial when facing a severe drought.
According to Abbott, Utah is facing the worst drought since the Middle Ages. The drought has become so dire that Gov. Spencer Cox declared a state of emergency and has begun the process for federal emergency resources to be accessed. Utah is one of the driest—and also one of the fastest-growing—states in the nation, with an 18.4 percent growth rate. The availability of affordable housing has hit a crisis point.
Proposed communities have popped up to offer thousands of people housing in the coming years. The state recently revealed plans for more housing at The Point, a 600-acre development in Draper designed to be a “one-car city.” Residents would be allowed more than one car, but they wouldn’t necessarily need one. The city is being designed to be walkable and bikeable, with easy access to mass transit and a focus on innovation in mind. By spring of 2023, developers will begin construction for a 20-year project that state leaders say will be a “legacy that will remain for generations.”
While some have warned that the proposed Utah Lake island communities would result in sinking islands crammed with glittery Dubai-like towers, Benson says those rumors are unsubstantiated. “We don’t want to see high-rise buildings—just beautiful communities that look like they belong,” he says.
Benson says Utah’s islands would include LEED-certified, energy- and water-efficient buildings with height restrictions so they don’t obstruct views from shore. The state has not determined the building approval process yet. Originally, the islands were slated to house 500,000 people, but that number will be significantly reduced.
“There will be a heightened focus on managing stormwater runoff and wastewater,” Benson says. “We want to avoid adding to the problem we’re trying to solve.”
Lake Restoration Solutions will look to several successful artificial islands around the world—some of which have also been controversial. Dredging created the Venetian islands in Miami a century ago, and SeaWorld’s home on Mission Bay in San Diego is also human-made. Dredging is currently underway in Galveston, Texas. Billionaire Barry Diller also spurred controversy when he built and opened an island off Manhattan last year using dredged material.
Sean Clark, whose Utah estate investment fund Prospera invested $20 million into the project, says he has been personally interested in Utah Lake for decades. As an avid boater, he spent hours at the library while attending BYU researching the environmental degradation of the lake.
“You don’t have to be a scientist to know that the lake is broken and it’s gotten worse,” Clark says. “This is the best plan that I’ve seen to clean up the lake.”
The environmental study by the Army Corp of Engineers will include fieldwork, data analysis, and design modeling to determine the impact on the environment and to understand whether the physical properties of the lake’s sediment will work for the islands.
Even after state and federal reviews, the dredging of the lake itself could take another 15 years because only a certain amount of sediment can be dredged each year to ensure lake levels do not drop.
Benson says the ultimate vision is a clean, healthy ecosystem that thousands of Utahns could enjoy for boating, swimming, fishing, camping, and paddleboarding. Until then, the Army Corps of Engineers will be the judge of whether Utah Lake would be better off with an island community—or left alone.