Spring 2015: Contemplating the Yin and Yang of Great Salt Lake – How Committed Are We When Lake Levels Go Down?

“I want to have enough water so we can turn those damn pumps on again.”

- The late Governor Norm Bangerter (1933- 2015)

I would add a bittersweet amen to that, Governor.

I think it was the spring of 2003 when FRIENDS hosted a field trip to the West Desert Pumping Project (WDPP) aka the “Bangerter Pumps”. In our never-ending pursuit of Great Salt Lake discoveries, we went to satisfy our curiosity about a fairly controversial project in the 80’s that had become famous. Famous because it provided an engineering solution of mythological proportions that enhanced the Lake’s natural evaporation process by mechanically expanding its surface area out into the west desert. As part of an extensive flood control program that was being implemented to address a rising Great Salt Lake, the project was awarded the 1988 Civil Engineering Achievement of Merit by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Awesome, dude!

Such measures aren’t totally foreign to our relationship with Great Salt Lake. The railroad had already made its statement in the 1950s by constructing the infamous causeway that continues to divide the system into two ecologically distinct parts – the North and South Arms. There’s evidence that even Brigham Young considered ways of “spilling” the Lake into the west desert to increase evaporation back in 1873 when it peaked at 4,211.5’. But the WDPP was then, and is now, symbolic of how we regard the importance of the Lake’s economic and ecological values in the scheme of our modern day existence.  And in that context, it also demonstrates how willing we are to persist in a tug of war relationship that defines our cultural interface between what we do and don’t want from Great Salt Lake.

On the rise-

As a shallow, terminal lake at the bottom of a 35,000 sq. mi. drainage basin with no natural outlet, a series of wet years will intensify any upward trending of the Lake’s elevation. The Lake rebounded from a record low of 4,191.3’ in 1963 and, despite a brief dry cycle in the 1970s, rose 20 feet over the course of 24 years. With that rise and an abbreviated evaporation season in 1982, the Lake’s briny waters spread out on its natural floodplain impacting a range of lakescape and landscape uses. Its surface area had nearly doubled to about 3,300 square miles. And between 1982 and 1987 (remember the river down State Street in 1983?) its volume had tripled to nearly 30 million acre- feet resulting in another historic high elevation of about 4,211.85’ mean surface level.

For 25 years between 1940 and1965 when the Lake was low, development on and around the Lake had escalated. Now, given the circumstances of these high water conditions much was at stake. Potential targets included the Salt Lake International Airport, extractive industries like minerals and brine shrimp, wildlife management areas and important habitat, public utilities such as wastewater treatment operations, roads and interstate highways, railroads and causeways, harbors and other recreational facilities, productive farmland, tourism, businesses, backyards and basements in neighborhoods, and anything else that happened to be in harm’s way from a swelling Great Salt Lake. Damages from this larger Lake were estimated at $1billion.

This kind of fluctuation of the Lake is considered within the range of its historic hydrologic cycle. However with such a stunning inundation of water at every turn, in the June 1999 report from the Utah Division of Water Resources and Utah Department of Natural Resources, The Great Salt Lake West Desert Pumping Project: Its Design, Development, and Operation, the Lake was characterized as  “being out of control”, “on a destructive rampage”, and “plagued those who have utilized its shores.”  Such a significant challenge from our inland sea impelled the state to step up to protect the health, safety and economic interests that were now at risk. And it was very ready, willing and able to do so.

Timing is of the essence-

By the late 1970’s quite a lot of attention had already been given to the concept of a West Desert Pumping Project as part of alternative flood control measures. In December 1983, the Utah Division of Water Resources released A Final Report West Desert Pumping Alternative-Great Salt Lake concluding that such a project was feasible. A WDPP would consist of a pumping plant, a system of canals and ponds, containment dikes and a return brine conveyance system. The extent of its footprint would go well beyond its state sovereign lands jurisdiction to include public lands, lands owned by the BLM and the US Air Force Target Range. Various permits, right-of ways (ROW), and agreements would have to be secured for a project of this scope to be constructed.

In 1984, the Southern Pacific Railroad causeway was breached to relieve the growing water differential that was banking up on the causeway from the collective inflows of the Bear, Weber/Ogden, and Jordan Rivers into the south arm. This breach dropped the elevation about one foot. Following the usual regulatory process, an Environmental Impact Statement was created, including Diking and No Action Alternatives. The final Record of Decision came in July 1986 and a 50-year ROW was granted by the BLM to the state on June 20, 1986 to “construct, operate, maintain and terminate” the WDPP. The USAF also granted the state a short-­term emergency access that terminated at the end of the pumping period.

In special session, the Utah Legislature authorized $71.7 million for HB 6 – the flood control bill.  The bill supported an array of immediate and long-term flood control measures that included the West Desert Pumping Project. More ominously, it also included funding for future feasibility considerations for dams and upstream storage, particularly on the Bear River that provides the lion’s share of inflows to Great Salt Lake.

From start to finish of the operation – April 10, 1987 to June 30, 1989, the pumps moved over 2.73 million acre-feet of Great Salt Lake water. The surface of the Lake dropped about 14.5” shrinking its shoreline by approximately 50,000 acres. In the first year of operation 1.4 million acre-feet of water - equivalent to 40% of the total level decline- was pumped. Even now, opinions vary about when and how long the pumps should have operated but there is consensus that the strategy was beneficial in addressing the flooding.

On the decline-

Springtime is normally the time of year boats are lowered into the harbor at the Great Salt Lake Marina. This year, boats are being lifted out for dry dock/storage until perhaps 2017. Slip renters are being encouraged by Harbormaster Dave Shearer to arrange for all boats with a draft over 3’ to be pulled out in preparation for the long awaited dredging that will finally begin on July 1. Although Great Salt Lake recreation contributes about $135.8 million annually to Utah’s economy, the $1.5 million for dredging required significant arm-twisting of Utah legislators to commit money from the Sovereign Lands Restricted Funds (that’s what this fund is for) to provide some relief. But without additional funding support from the State Parks Park Fees Restricted Funds (sic) dredging wouldn’t be happening.

Many of these boats haven’t been able to leave their slips for almost a year and sailors are preparing for a record low Lake elevation of 4,191.3’ this summer. Shearer suggests that a snowpack of 140% or more is necessary for the Lake to rise enough in 2016 to make it suitable for navigation again.

Meanwhile, in the North Arm (4,192.4’) where Lake levels are typically 1.5’ lower, the 3rd largest breeding population of American White Pelicans in North America is returning to Gunnison Island to produce the next generation of birds. The island is no longer surrounded by water. That means the population is vulnerable to land access predators.

The island and pelicans are protected under Utah law. How are the Division of Wildlife Resources, and Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands proposing to meet this jurisdictional responsibility?

We know from other saline systems in the region and around the planet that upstream water diversions and climate change have contributed to lower water levels. In some cases, such as California’s Owens Lake, lakes have dried up completely. Exposed lakebeds create dust and air quality problems that influence health and quality of life issues. At Owens Lake, millions of dollars are now being spent on trying to put water back into a system that has become notorious for its high levels of PM10.

Back in the ‘80’s Utah was ready, willing and able to take the initiative to protect economic interests that are generated by the Lake, protect the health and safety of its population, and address important ecological attributes like habitat restoration and protection.

Why aren’t we doing that now? The situation is the same: low water levels threaten economic interests, threaten the health of our citizens, and threaten critical habitat. It is time to act. At the very least $1.3 billion is at stake.

In saline,



Thanks for being there for the Lake.


Why We Care

  • The whole environment of Great Salt Lake is a place of wonder. Life abounds in water, on islands, and about the marshland edges where migratory birds find refuge during long flights north and south. It is also a source of income for companies around its rim (unfortunately). Challenges for the Lake today are balancing acts. We must continue to foster the generous gifts the Lake provides for wildlife, community, and visitors as well as make peace with the human intrusions that threaten not only the Lake’s beauty, but also its very existence as the bountiful center of a thriving community along the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains.

    Maurine Haltiner, Alfred Lambourne Prize Participant