BYU Law Review


Utah Lake, the largest freshwater lake in the third driest state, is a vital, yet underappreciated natural resource. In 2018, the Utah State Legislature passed the Utah Lake Restoration Act in an attempt to restore and enhance the lake’s ecological and recreational value. Yet the new law has been met with strong public resistance because it leaves the lake vulnerable to exploitation and further ecological degradation, a concern made real by a proposed development plan that would build a city of islands on top of the lake. Community members cite specific concerns about threats to native species, disruption of water rights, and burdens on local taxpayers. But such a plan also presents potential legal issues as the scheme likely violates the public trust doctrine. A legal doctrine with historic roots, the public trust doctrine asserts that the public has a right to the beneficial use of lands underlying navigable waters. The state, as trustee, has an inalienable responsibility to preserve this public benefit. Utah’s Constitution, statutes, and common law all support continued adherence to the public trust doctrine, suggesting that the state legislature has written an illegal law. Amending the Utah Lake Restoration Act to comply with the public trust doctrine, or repealing it altogether, will provide notice to would-be developers to construct their plans accordingly and safeguard against potential lawsuits against the state.


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