Pump engine Schematic of pump house Flooding
Great Salt Lake
Pumping Project
The Great Salt Lake
Flood Protection Alternatives
Operating the Pumping Project
Contingency Plan
Construction of the Pumping Project
Fact Sheet
Shutdown of the Pumping Project
Water Resources Home Page

Pump House Construction of the West Desert Pumping Project was an unprecedented flood control action on the Great Salt Lake, the largest body of water in the Western Hemisphere without an outlet to a sea. The project, designed to enhance the lake's natural evaporation process, was constructed in record time. Construction began on July 7, 1986. The first of the project's three pumps began operating on April 10, 1987. The project was fully operational on June 3, 1987.

Between fall 1982 and June 1987, the level of the Great Salt Lake rose over 12 feet, the tail-end of a steady rise of nearly 20 feet between 1963 and 1987. The lake had more than doubled its surface area and increased its volume three-fold. The lake level reached a modern-day record 4211.85 feet above mean sea level in 1986 and 1987, surpassing the historic high of 4211.60 set in June 1873. At the new record level, the lake covered almost 2,400 square miles and contained over 30 million acre-feet of water. For perspective, its expanse was only about 487 square mile less than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined, and the lake contained an acre-foot of water for every resident of Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.  The Great Salt Lake went on a costly, destructive rampage with its hoarded inflow from record amounts of snow and rain in Northern Utah. Shoreline flooding caused an estimated $240 million in damages to Interstate 80, mineral industries, railway systems, sewage treatment plants, wildlife habitat, recreation areas, and public and private property. 

Weather experts could predict no immediate change in the weather, which led to fears that Interstate 80 would be lost to flooding, requiring a new, rerouted freeway. The Southern Pacific and Union Pacific railroads considered shutting down operations because of flood damage. Fears grew that the Salt Lake International Airport would stop flights because runway drains were starting to fill up. The Great Salt Lake appeared out of control

Construction and operation of the West Desert Pumping Project was controversial, and it spawned considerable public and political debate about costs and alternatives to pumping lake brine. Concern about the damage caused by the Great Salt Lake was widespread, but many people harbored hope the lake would heal itself. The project, however, eventually won approval from the Utah State Legislature by a substantial margin as the most cost-effective and technically sound solution with the greatest public benefit. Project engineers faced and overcame unique challenges, including the harsh environment of the Great Salt Lake, remoteness of the Pumping Plant, and difficult access to construction areas. The project was nominated for the prestigious Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Award from the American Society of Civil Engineers and won the society's Civil Engineering Achievement of Merit Award.

A total of $71.7 million was authorized for flood control efforts during a special session of the 1986 Utah State Legislature, including $60 million to the Utah Division of Water Resources, Utah Department of Natural Resources, to implement the project to pump water from the Great Salt Lake into the desert area west of the lake.

The pumping project was shut down on June 30, 1989, after more than two years of successful operation. The project pumped about 2.73 million acre-feet of brines from the lake. The shutdown process took about eight weeks, requiring the Pumping Plant to be secured and dismantling, preserving and storing tools and system control devices.

Since the project was shut down, the Pumping Plant has been inspected periodically and maintained as insurance against future flooding around the Great Salt Lake. It is a permanent facility that cannot be dismantled for other uses.