Gov. Norm Bangerter might not be much for lotteries, but inside the man beats the heart of a river boat gambler.
In the spring of 1986, Bangerter went way out on a political limb when he declared the West Desert pumping project the only economically feasible way he knew to control the then-rampaging Great Salt Lake.It was risky then, he acknowledges. And still is.
Polls show most people either give credit or pin the blame squarely on Bangerter for the $60 million project, which grows more pale (as in white elephant) with each successive day of below-normal precipitation.
This day, however, a gentle rain brings a smile to the governor's face.
"I take responsibility for the (pumping) decision," said Bangerter. He hastens to point out, however, that the idea of West Desert pumping didn't originate with him. It actually was the brainchild of Gov. Scott Matheson's Democratic administration.
"If we were going to control the level of the lake . . . it was the best decision we could make. Virtually everyone called for it (pumping) in 1986 when the decision was being made."
Indeed, Bangerter was not alone in clamoring for pumping. A Dan Jones and Associates poll conducted for Deseret News and KSL in May 1986 showed that 47 percent of those surveyed favored the pumping project. Local government officials up and down the Wasatch Front were also among those who lobbied the Legislature for the project.
"The decision to pump was not a partisan issue," Ban-gerter recalls.
Dee Hansen, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, said it's unfortunate the governor has taken the heat he has for pumping because the project had bilateral support in the Legislature.
But while some have jumped off the bandwagon in the past two dry years, Bangerter remains in the driver's seat. But this being an election year, Bangerter knows some will try to politicize pumping.
Independent gubernatorial candidate Merrill Cook says he advised against pumping from day one.
Cook said Utah historically has gone through wet and dry cycles and even as the pumping decision was being made, some experts were predicting the current drying trend. "I don't want to sound flip, but they should have consulted the Farmers' Almanac before they started pumping," he said.
"Not to second guess the decision, but I spoke against it from the start. I guess you could say I'm the one candidate who doesn't have to pray for rain," he said with a chuckle.
Bangerter's Democratic challenger, Ted Wilson, is more critical of the time that elapsed before pumping was implemented than the pumping project itself.
"Early in the wet cycle, it looked as though pumping was an alternative, but the decision to pump or not to pump should have been made much earlier," said a campaign staff member on behalf of Wilson, who was out of the state for several days. "It should have been made 18 months to two years earlier."
The staff member said when the decision to pump was made, the shoreline was already lost and the lake was so big that it would have taken 150 percent of normal for it to have continued its rise.
Bangerter, however, is unfazed by such criticism.
"What pumping gives us is an ability when we have wet cycles to mitigate the damage very minimally. The pumps give us the ability to be flexible when we have wet years, and for that reason it's still a prudent decision," he said in a matter of fact tone.
Had the pumps been in place back in 1982 when the first signs of trouble surfaced the lake's rise could have been contained at 4,209, he said.
Bangerter said the project has already paid for itself in ways not always evident to the public. Several major lakeside industries, such as AMAX Industries and the Great Salt Lake Minerals and Chemicals Corp., have kept their doors open based on future protection afforded by the pumps. Farmers have also been able to reclaim valuable farmland as the lake level continues to recede.
While dry weather, pumping and evaporation have combined to drop the lake's current level to 4,209.55 feet above sea level, Bangerter said, that's not enough. In fact, he seriously questions if a level of 4,208, which the pumps were designed to achieve, is adequate.
Bangerter said he's studying a relatively inexpensive option to lower the lake another 1 1/2 feet by dredging a deeper intake channel for the pumps. The cost is between $1 million and $1.5 million.
Bangerter said he personally would be a lot more comfortable were an extra 1 1/2 feet taken off the lake, but he stops short of saying he'll give the go-ahead for dredging.
Even if the dredging option is chosen, the time will come when the pumps will still have to be turned off. When that does happen, Bangerter said, he has no problem putting them in storage.
"I guess we'll just put them away for a rainy day," he joked, gesturing toward the window.