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SALT LAKE CITY — The last time Utahns worried so much about flooding, it was the 1980s. And way back then, Utah officials did something very big to deal with it.
At a cost of more than $60 million, they built gigantic pumps which ran for only 26 months.
This week, citizens have been calling state offices, asking if the pumps will be reactivated. The answer: not very likely for many years to come.
The pumps were installed on the west side of the Great Salt Lake after the expenditure was approved by the state Legislature and then-Gov. Norm Bangerter. He inherited the project from his predecessor, Scott Matheson, at a time when the Great Salt Lake was on a rampage, flooding highways, railroads and industries surrounding the inland sea.
"The lake had come up," said Eric Millis, deputy director of the Utah Division of Water Resources. "I think there was about $260 million in damage."
Although the pumps were controversial at the time, especially because of the price tag, the argument that won the day was that they might head off further damage. "Well, the pumps are an insurance policy for us, really," Millis said.
Today, a man-made channel leads through miles of mudflats to the gigantic pump house. A huge canal leads west, into a vast uninhabited area miles from the lake. The goal was to pump water from the lake, through the canal, spilling the lake onto dry land.
The pumps were credited with taking about 18 inches off the level of lake (in the late 1980s). Mother Nature, of course, did her job, too.
–Eric Millis, Division of Water Resources
"Here in the desert it forms a big pond and would evaporate away," Millis said.
It worked that way, just as planned, when the pumps fired up in April of 1987. But they were switched off after 26 months and it's now possible — some say likely — they will never run again.
The reason is the long, slow dynamic of the Great Salt Lake. Over the past 150 years, the lake has risen and fallen dramatically. But each phase takes decades. Just as the pumps fired up in 1987, the lake started a long, natural decline. It dropped about 18 vertical feet in the past 20 years. Only a fraction of the drop is attributable to the pumps.
"The pumps were credited with taking about 18 inches off the level of lake," Millis said. "Mother Nature, of course, did her job, too."
Bangerter said his only regret is the pumps didn't start years earlier.
"We saved, even at the late date, more than they cost by keeping some of those industries going," the former governor said.
I would presume that they will (turn on) at some point in time. But, as I say, I doubt that I will live to see that.
–Former Gov. Norm Bangerter
The lake level today is way below its historic average. Pumping would only make sense if it rises about 12 to 16 feet. If the lake's history is any guide, the best guess is it will be 10 or 20 years, if ever, before state officials would even consider firing up the pumps again.
Millis, though, said it's theoretically possible the lake could get high enough in perhaps four years.
"It's probably unlikely that it would come up that fast," Millis said. "But if we had several years like this year looks like it's going to turn out to be, within three or four years, I think it could be to that level. But, again, I doubt it."
Bangerter doubts he'll ever see the pumps fire up again. "I would presume that they will at some point in time," Bangerter said. "But, as I say, I doubt that I will live to see that."
State workers regularly visit the pumps for maintenance. If a decision is ever made to restart, it would take about six months to get the pumps ready for action.