Critics snidely refer to it as a "giant soda straw" and "Bango's Folly." Supporters say it's a lifesaver and insurance policy against the whims of Mother Nature.
Only time will tell which side is right.Few endeavors in Utah's history have generated interest and controversy as has the state's $60 million West Des-ert Pumping Project at Hogup Ridge in the remote Great Salt Lake Desert.
Proponents unabashedly declare the project a glowing success crediting the pumps with dropping the level of the Great Salt Lake 10 inches during their first year of operation.
"The pumps have performed beautifully," said Dee Hansen, executive director for the Utah Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the project. "They've lowered the lake level about 10 inches, which is about what was fore-casted."
Detractors, meanwhile, say the pumps' achievement is overshadowed by the fact Mother Nature lowered the lake's level about 2 feet over that same period of time and did it for $60 million less.
"The question you have to ask yourself is where would the lake be today without the pumps," said a civil engineer involved with projects around the lake.
"I know I'm going to sound like a Monday morning quarterback, but if I'd been making a decision to go with the pumps a year ago, I would have said no. Although what I've seen of the data is sketchy, I'd still stick with that decision today." The engineer asked not to be identified.
Suffice it to say, the merits of the gargantuan project, now entering its second year, will likely be debated in engineering and climatology circles well into the next century.
Questions shrouding the pumps today are essentially the same ones that state officials, engineers and lawmakers wrestled with when the decision was made to go ahead with the pumping plan in the late spring of 1986.
Hansen said the project had already been delayed one year after Gov. Norm Bangerter took office. As late as early February 1986, pumping still looked like it might not be needed because of below normal levels of precipitation.
But then the heavens opened. Heavy precipitation and snowmelt in northern Utah during early- and mid-February 1986 prompted forecasters to add 21/2 inches to their predicted peak of the lake's level. Next it was learned the lake had experienced a phenomenal one-day rise of about 2 inches Feb. 19. Finally, on May 9, the rampaging lake rose to 4,211.64 feet above sea level shattering a 113-year-old record. The lake eventually peaked at 4,211.85 on June 3.
The lake's unprecedented rise even fostered predictions by seemingly credible sources that the lake might not relent until it reached 4,215 feet by 1988; or that the rise might be tied to the start of another glacial epoch. It was amid this frenzy that Legislators grudgingly approved the pumping project albeit a barebones version when compared to the $90 million project originally envisioned.
"We couldn't afford to take the risk of not pumping," Hansen said.
The interstate was at risk. Industry was at risk. The railroad corridors were at risk, he said. Hansen noted that wind, tides and waves from a powerful storm June 6-7 several weeks after the pumping proj-ect's approval resulted in millions of dollars worth of damage to facilities around the lake. The storm's devastation included breaching the Southern Pacific's causeway in several places and completely destroying AMAX Magnesium's solar pond complex in Tooele County.
"We had to do something," Hansen said. "The risk of not doing something was too great. Ironically, hindsight then was that we should have done it earlier.
Hindsight now, however, suggests pumping may not have been needed.
"It was a waste of money. They just flushed $60 million down the lake," said Greg Beesley, chairman of the Tax Limitation Coalition. "Anybody that wanted to look at the long-term weather charts knew this would be a dry year because we go in seven-year cycles."
Beesley said, after talking with Republican leadership in the Legislature, he now realizes that while pumping was sold to lawmakers and the public under the guise of flood control, the primary reason for the pumps is to protect lakeside chemical companies and to stimulate long-term economic growth and jobs associated with the lake.
While he won't argue the merits of the "real" plan behind pumping, Beesley said, that sure isn't the way the project was originally presented.
"The odds were against the project from the start," said the same unnamed civil engineer. "That lake has risen and fallen, risen and fallen for a long time. We had just experienced some of our wettest years, and it seemed likely the lake would be due for a drop."
That drop, in fact, has been historic.
Bill Alder, meteorologist in charge of the U.S. Weather Service's Salt Lake office, said that subtracting for evaporation, the net-volume inflow into the lake was at an all-time low of 254,000 acre feet without even factoring in contributions made by pumping. By comparison, inflow during the drought year of 1976-77 was 451,000 acre feet.
He said the record-low rise is even more phenomenal when compared to the lake's record one-year increase of 5.1 feet a few years earlier in 1982-83.
No one in the spring of 1986, however could say for certain if the weather was going to dry out or not.
"I thought we were going to start to dry out in 1985," Alder said, recalling the project was put off one year waiting for drier weather. "But things remained wet another year."
That put decision-makers between the proverbial rock and a hard place. "Doing nothing probably would have brought as much criticism as doing something," Alder said. "Especially when we didn't know for sure what Mother Nature had in store for us."
He said pumping represented the cheapest option and promised the biggest short-term results. It's hard to argue the results haven't been beneficial, although the lake would have come down by itself. "It's worked basically except Mother Nature has helped."
Alder said the lake hit this year's peak Feb. 10 at 4,209.55 feet and has held steady for the past two months. The lake traditionally rises 4 or 5 inches between February and March, but plenty of sun and above-average temperatures have apparently given evaporation a head start.
Even Hansen admits the pumps might have been unneeded.
"Sure, with 20-20 hindsight knowing that we were going to experience two dry years in a row we probably wouldn't have built the pumps," he said. "But it was the right decision at the time.
"No one expected things would be so dry after just one year of operation. Originally, we were predicting three or four years of operation," he said. "We were facing a very critical dilemma and pumping helped us solve it. The fact nature helped us is a plus."
Gov. Norm Bangerter, who's name is probably most closely linked to the project, also defends the decision to go with the pumps despite current weather patterns.
"No one liked the idea of pumping, including me, " Bangerter said. "Yes it was risky, but we don't make these decisions in retrospect.
Hansen said the pumps can take about another 11/2 feet off of the lake's current 4,209.55 level. But once the level reaches 4,208, the pumps' effectiveness will diminish drastically. Dredging, which carries an added pricetag of between $1 million and $1.5 million, would allow the pumps to continue pumping down to about 4206.5, after which the pumps would have to be mothballed.
Without dredging, Hansen said, the pumps will likely be shut off sometime this summer assuming the current dry cycle continues and preparations made to store them until needed again.
Brad Dickson, sales engineer for Dresser-Rand, which supplied the massive 50-foot pumps used for the project, assures that storage, either long-term or short-term, is no problem.
Dickson said initial inspections have found the pumps to be in remarkably good condition following their first year of operation. Special nickel, aluminum and bronze used on the pumps shows no appreciable wear so far, and if properly prepared and maintained, he sees no reason why the pumps can't be stored indefinitely.
Beesley, however, predicts that within five years the pumps will be discarded and the pumping facility abandoned.
Hansen said even if the pumps have to sit idle for years at a stretch, that doesn't diminish their value. He said having the pumps means the lake can rise up to 150 percent of normal each year without causing serious problems.
"They're insurance," Hansen said of the pumps. "As long as we have the pumps, flooding won't be a problem on the lake. We all know we can't beat Mother Nature just work with her."
Skeptics say that's precisely their point.
"If Mother Nature decides the lake is going up," said the unnamed engineer, "not the state, nor anybody else can build pumps large enough to stop it."
One year later and the debate still rages.