That’s what Utah Gov. Norm Bangerter said in 1987, as he turned on the first of three pumps designed to drain the Great Salt Lake and save the Wasatch Front from flooding.
I’m not being overly critical of the late governor, who I covered as a reporter and still respect immensely. He had little choice. The state had just paid $60 million for a west-desert pumping project. He had to put a good face on it.
But when you live next to a lake with no outlet in a hostile desert, the most foolish thing you can do is claim to be in control of your destiny. Even as he said those words, a lot of observers could already feel a change in the winds.
As the New York Times put it back then: “And now, just as the pumps are being turned on, the cycle of wet weather that caused the flooding is passing. Many wonder if the state is spending $60 million to solve a problem that nature would have repaired free of charge.”
“I have to tell you, Mother Nature’s going to have to kick in a little bit at some point.”
That’s from Bart Forsyth, general manager of the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District. He was speaking to a legislative hearing in May about efforts to combat a record drought that has drained the Great Salt Lake to its lowest level in recorded history.
Politicians can make plans and spend money. Some of it might even do some good. But nothing could compete with a few consecutive years of wet weather. And the weather has little regard for political threats or appropriations.
I raise the issue of the pumps again (they remain well-maintained and ready to pump, albeit high and dry), because of what might be considered a book-end idea. The Legislative Water Development Commission has a list of potential recommendations to counter the drought. One of them is to “study the feasibility and cost of piping water from the ocean to help fill the Great Salt Lake.”
That would be the Pacific Ocean, more than 600 miles and a 14,505-foot Sierra Nevada Mountain Range away.
My guess is this would cost much more than $60 million, but if Utah decides to build it, it might seem we have everything covered. If it floods, we pump the water away. If a drought hits, we pump it in. All that would be lacking is a set of giant fans atop the Wasatch Range to blow away smog during inversion days.
If only controlling destiny were so simple.
I have two rules when it comes to the ideas politicians pose. One is to never ridicule thinking that is outside the box. A 600-foot hose from the ocean to the lake qualifies as outside anybody’s box. But then, I’m sure people were skeptical about the idea of an Erie Canal in the early 1800s.
But my second rule is to urge politicians to make informed decisions, and part of that information must come from the past. The only thing sillier than pumps in the middle of a dry desert would be a long, dry pipe next to a full lake.
And a pipe that inadvertently ruins the delicate ecosystem of a one-of-a-kind lake would be tragic.
Critics point to other options that ought to be more fully explored, first, such as greater efforts toward conservation. The lake has two problems. One is the drought. The other is how much water is diverted for personal use before it gets to the lake. Utah water users pay artificially low rates, aided in many cases by property tax subsidies to water companies. Raising the price of water — after allowing for an acceptable low price on the first 5,000 gallons or so each month — would provide an incentive to cut use.
Utah just allocated $40 million toward strategies designed to save the lake. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney is sponsoring a bill that would study ways to save the lake, including providing federal help for diverting water across state lines.
And the state has one effective unused weapon in its arsenal — recycling waste water for human consumption. Don’t think too deeply about it.
The American West has a long history of alternatively making life either pleasantly alluring or life-threateningly unbearable for its inhabitants. It teases, then turns.
Experts have assured me this drought will end. Mother Nature will kick in. At the same time, they point to climate change to speculate things may never be mid-’80s flush again.
All we know is we can’t really control our destiny, and also that doing nothing right now really isn’t an option, either.