Man-made Islands in Utah Lake: Savior of the Lake or Ecological Disaster?

Sienna Yang, Pawprint Staff Reporter

On Feb. 2, 2022, a Utah company called Lake Restoration Solutions publicized the highly controversial “Utah Lake Restoration Project.” According to Brian Maffly at the Salt Lake Tribune, the billion-dollar project is based on “excavating a billion cubic yards of lakebed sediments and sculpting the material into 20,000 acres of artificial islands.”

The islands, once completed, are supposed to be a “…world-class destination for tourists and residents,” according to Amy Joi O’Donoghue at Deseret News. Housing and tourist attractions will be built on the islands, capable of housing half a million people, funded by various development companies.

Besides bringing in more tourists, it supposedly will also emphasize the restoration of the Utah Lake ecosystem. 

However, opponents of the project say that the promise of ‘restoration’ is simply empty words with no scientific evidence to support it.

To give a bit of context, Utah Lake saved the Mormon settlements that moved to Utah at the cost of its ecosystem. The majority of their food was the June sucker, a type of fish that was very easy to catch and was extremely abundant back then.

Over the years, it caused a significant decline in the number of fish in the lake, and eventually, the June suckers nearly went extinct because of overfishing.

On a podcast by RadioWest, Ben Abbott, a professor at Brigham Young University, stated that “The thinking of the time was that the actual species of fish didn’t matter so much; you lose one, you go find another.”

That thought, while well-intentioned in origin, soon spiraled into something worse. The government at the time introduced carp to the lake, and because there were still so many native species, the carp didn’t thrive as they were expecting it to. 

That changed as the expectations for the lake grew, and the lake itself continued to “degrade,” as RadioWest host Doug Fabrizio put it. More and more water was needed to water the settlements, so the settlers “pumped out thousands, hundreds of thousands of acre-feet from the lake,” Fabrizio said. 

All those stress factors combined forced the lake to change from a plant-based ecosystem to an algae-based ecosystem, which is what Utahns see and experience today.

The Utah Lake Restoration Project aims to help the ecosystem revert back to its original state by taking the contaminated soil and sediment from the lakebed and hiding it away inside the islands they’ll manufacture.

Fabrizio compares it to a miracle cure, as opposed to the already ongoing restoration projects, like the removal of carp, which was extremely successful and overreached its goal. 

“Just like human health, it takes time for the intervention to bear fruit,” Abbott said.

Lake Restoration Solution says that their project will make the lake deeper. It will also prevent more wind disturbance of the water surface, eventually helping the comeback of native plant life and reducing the number of algae. 

However, there is no evidence that dredging will do any of that. If there is, then it hasn’t been publicly released. 

It comes down to what the Utah government decides and what the citizens living around Utah Lake want for themselves in the present and future.