John Bennion

A native of the Utah desert, John Bennion writes personal and historical essays and fiction about people struggling with that forbidding landscape. See his full bio here.

 

An edited version of this piece was published in The Salt Lake Tribune on April 7, 2022.

I’ve been reading articles and seeing billboards from the company that wants to put islands in Utah Lake—Lake Restoration Solutions. Recently, the CEO, Jon Benson, paid the Tribune, KSL, and other TV, radio, and social media outlets to publish a persuasive article about what his company claims they will do for Utah Lake. (See the full paid advertorial in The Salt Lake Tribune)

During my career as a writing professor, I taught a number of composition classes, including persuasive writing. Hopefully, students learned not only to create solid, balanced arguments, but also to see through shoddy arguments. I hope they learned to identify and evaluate the main and supporting claims, research reputable sources to check factual accuracy, and identify biases of the writer. 

Does the main argument stand scrutiny? Benson’s argument, stated in his first paragraph, is that Utah Lake needs help and, if everyone works together, we can save the lake. This seems unquestionable, but further examination reveals how slippery his claim is. He and LRS imply that they want all those with a vested interest to join forces, but nowhere does the article list those already working to restore the lake: the Division of Water Quality; teams of scientists from BYU, UVU, and other institutions; the Utah Lake Commission (now Utah Lake Authority); the Provo River Restoration Project, the Walkara Way Project; Conserve Utah Valley, cities and towns that have revised their wastewater treatment process, and other groups. By making “we” vague, Benson can take credit for past progress and imply the company’s desire to cooperate with other agencies, when the implicit argument is more self-serving: If LRS doesn’t step in, the lake will not be restored. That argument is easy to disprove as an either/or fallacy; citizens of Utah Valley and the State have many options to improve the lake. “We” in Benson’s article means primarily LRS. In effect, he’s saying, If you would just get out of the way, we will take care of the lake, and we will get the benefit of selling real estate on the islands we plan to build.

The article’s supporting claims are that dredging the lakebed and using that material to build islands will remove contaminated lakebed sediments, reduce evaporation, allow vegetation to return to the bottom of the lake, expand shoreline, and increase wetlands and other wildlife habitat. This is such an important issue that it’s worth going through each of these claims.

Are lakebed sediments polluted? The answer is mixed. Two studies by BYU researchers published in the Journal of Hydrology and PLOS ONE found that phosphorous levels are high in the lake but are not statistically different from the levels in the surrounding areas and in the sediment deposited deep in the lakebed, before wastewater was dumped into the lake and before the agricultural use of chemical fertilizer.[i] An exception is the northeast portion of Provo Bay, which does show evidence of artificially high nutrients. A “white” paper, by LaVere B. Merritt, Consulting Engineer at Utah Water Conservancy District, makes a similar claim.[ii]  In 2008 the State did a study of water and sediments at the mouth of the main tributaries and wastewater discharges. He says that the pollutants they detected were probably from many years ago, and the levels were so low that it is more dangerous to drive a car to the lake to fish than it is to eat a fish from the lake. In a 2008 interview Mike Mills, of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District says that in the past Utah Lake was polluted. [iii] “After the great depression and up until the late ’60s, several cities around the lake were discharging raw sewage directly into the lake, and there were signs posted stating that the water wasn’t safe for swimming.” The common practice of polluting the lake ended with the Water Pollution Control Amendments of 1972.  He says, “That history probably contributes to the reputation that Utah Lake is still polluted.” Perhaps a better question is, would removing the lakebed sediment help the lake recover from past pollution? LRS has provided no evidence the answer is yes.

 

Will building islands and deepening the lake reduce evaporation? This begs the question of whether we’d be better off with less evaporation in the first place. A recent report by researchers from across the state points out the importance of Utah Lake evaporation. Evaporation from Utah Lake sustains the local rain and snow we depend on. Evaporation also enables the chemical reactions in the lake that remove nutrients and protect us from more intense algal blooms. Shrinking the surface area with islands would almost certainly have unintended consequences. In an interview on Utah Public Radio, Ben Abbott, an aquatic ecologist who has studied Utah Lake, predicted that deepening the lake could increase algae blooms.[iv] Merritt in the white paper cited above writes that deepening the lake would, as LRS claims, cause the lake to have less wave-caused turbidity (chalky color) but more biological turbidity from algae growth.[v] “This situation could often result in a ‘pea soup’ of algal growth during much of summer and early fall. This would likely cause a major deterioration in lake quality and habitat—the most damaging effect would be increased episodes of oxygen loss during the decay phase of algal blooms. Stresses on aquatic life, high turbidity, and bad odors are some of the common problems accompanying the growth die away and decay of algae blooms.”

Concerning lake bottom vegetation, the introduction of carp is what caused vegetation to disappear, removing carp will solve this problem, not deepening the lake, which could

permanently reduce habitat by making it unsuitable for vegetation. Currently, there is a massive carp removal project undergoing, coordinated by the Utah Lake Commission. In 2015, executive director Reed Price said that during the first four years of the project, 17 million pounds of carp were removed.[vi] Their project reached its goal of removing 75% of the carp biomass ahead of schedule and under budget.

Do we need more shoreline? I’m not sure why this is claimed as a benefit. How much shoreline does a lake need? Will wetlands be better on islands or on shore where they traditionally have been? We certainly can improve wetlands, and the Provo Delta Restoration Project, begun in 2021 and finishing by 2024, is doing so without the help of LRS. The Utah Lake Commission has coordinated the removal tons of invasive phragmites—certainly less expensive than building islands.

Benson suggests we shouldn’t worry because government agencies must review the project. Reassuring. But even if these agencies say the project may proceed, that doesn’t mean that it should. LRS hired engineering and diving companies to survey the lake, and another firm to survey current wetlands.[vii] Where are the comprehensive studies of the feasibility of the islands themselves? Maybe they’ve done these studies but forgot to mention them. 

More than 100 scientists who study Utah Lake signed a letter saying that building islands in Utah Lake is a bad idea.[viii] Benson in his paid advertisement and LRS on their website claim that the project is a good idea and is science driven. Their website says they hired an engineering firm and an underwater construction company to survey the lake, and another company to survey current wetlands.[ix] The website says nothing about studies they’ve made to determine whether the islands should be created or what the impact will be if they are created. Maybe they’ve done this but forgot to mention it in the brochure.  The entrepreneur who introduced carp had good intentions but didn’t imagine unintended consequences. I can’t see evidence that LRS has either. What will happen when tons of sediment are redistributed on a notoriously unsteady lakebed?

It’s clear what Benson and LRS stand to get from building the islands, billions of profits in real estate sales. Has that motive affected their conclusions? Benson’s articles make a lot of promises, but how they will be achieved is left to the reader’s faith. Reputable writers of solid arguments describe the limits of their claims, but that doesn’t happen with Benson. As the saying goes: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

                                                      

[i]https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322639709_Characterizing_Total_Phosphorus_in_Current_and_Geologic_Utah_Lake_Sediments_Implications_for_Water_Quality_Management_Issues; https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0212238

[ii] http://wfwqc.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/UL-info-Nov-2017.pdf

[iii] https://utahlake.org/ew-gross-is-utah-lake-polluted/

[iv] https://www.upr.org/2022-02-10/a-deep-dive-into-utah-lake-part-2

[v]https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322639709_Characterizing_Total_Phosphorus_in_Current_and_Geologic_Utah_Lake_Sediments_Implications_for_Water_Quality_Management_Issues

[vi] https://www.ksl.com/article/33443328/carp-e-diem-fishermen-removing-carp-to-build-brighter-future-for-utah-lake

[vii] https://www.lakerestorationsolutions.com/science-driven-solutions/

[viii]https://conserveutahvalley.org/more-than-100-scientists-and-experts-speak-out-against-proposed-islands-development-for-utah-lake/

[ix] https://www.lakerestorationsolutions.com/science-driven-solutions/