Hydrol-itics and the Wasatch Water Supply

“When the well is dry, we learn the worth of water.” –Benjamin Franklin

With a record-breaking winter and the subsequent water associated with over 700 inches of snow, hydrology and flooding has been on everyone’s mind this spring and summer.  Living in a high desert, the retention and management of life-giving water is a high priority and a heated topic of recent debate.  It’s quite the balancing act delivering year round recreation opportunities to millions of Salt Lake residents and tourists, while at the same time trying to protect the integrity of the water supply.  Fortunately, Utah is blessed with several organizations that regulate the distribution and maintenance of these supplies in a responsible manner. The vast network of river systems, creeks and lakes has been vital to the survival of Utah’s people for centuries, and their understanding of the seasonal changes has enabled populations to flourish in the second most arid state in the nation.  What few people in Salt Lake City realize is that the continued cooperation between recreational development and clean, inexpensive water treatment lies directly in their hands.

Within the last 150 years, a relatively rapid population growth in the Salt Lake Valley occurred.  Spurred by the migration of thousands of LDS pioneers and coupled with the great interest in developing Utah’s mineral deposits during the 1800’s, water rights became an essential talking point for the creation of a successful society in the West.  The initial formation of the United States Forest Service created a government agency that was responsible for the conservation and management of natural environments throughout the nation.  Led by the spirited Gifford Pinchot, the Forest Service evolved once Theodore Roosevelt took office in the early 1900’s.  Roosevelt’s penchant for preservation greatly influenced the country’s outlook on why establishing natural preserves was important, the heart of which are water resources.

As early as 1906, Watershed Rangers from the Forest Service began taking steps to ensure the quality of Salt Lake drinking water.  Rampant typhoid outbreaks throughout the region further stressed the necessity of a comprehensive water treatment plan.  Early efforts to treat water through simple chlorination proved extremely effective and the fatalities caused by the disease dropped off dramatically.   Within a few more years, “statesman and city leaders from Salt Lake City, along with Pinchot, went to congress to ask that the Wasatch Forest Reserve be created and set aside specifically for the purpose of protecting the city’s water supply,” said Patrick Nelson, the Salt Lake City Watershed Supervisor.  The first push towards creating a dedicated watershed greatly altered the citizens’ views on how to respect their water resources, as well as foster a creative implementation of regulation to ensue overall quality.  City Creek Canyon had always been an important source of Salt Lake water due to its close proximity to the Temple and surrounding population.  With the creation of a federally recognized watershed, City Creek became the first fully protected canyon along the Wasatch Front. In the early 1950’s the canyon was closed to the public due to irresponsible recreation that degraded the water quality. In 1953, the canyon’s treatment plant became Utah’s first municipally owned water facility, and in 1966, the canyon was reopened to the public.  These preliminary steps created a strong foundation upon which future watershed and treatment plans could be constructed.

The expansion of the Salt Lake City Watershed to encompass Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons during the 1960’s was a critical step in the formation of a clean and reliable network of water resources.  Due to the isolated nature of these areas, ensuring a high quality of water from the source was of primary concern. Mining in both canyons had already greatly diminished water quality and a concentrated effort was needed to return the area to its original pristine condition.  While clean up was critical, the potential for the canyons to become epicenters of world-class ski resorts began to attract investors and developers from all over the globe.  Alta and Brighton had already been in the business of skiing for sometime, and it wasn’t until the late 1960’s that the possibility of a mega-resort like Snowbird had even been considered for the area.  Ted Johnson and Dick Bass had the vision and the capital to construct such a place.  In 1970, plans to build a tramway to 11,000 feet were underway, and the blueprints for state-of-the-art resort facilities were being drawn.

“In September of 1970, the Service Area was formed in order to get a government grant and a loan for the construction of a sewer line up Little Cottonwood Canyon,” said Keith Hanson, the general manger of Salt Lake County Service Area #3. The construction of the sewer line would enable Alta and the proposed Snowbird Village to dispose of its waste without contaminating the newly developed watershed.  “The sewer line was controversial when it was being put in.  The people at Alta actually voted it down, they didn’t want the expansion.  It was Johnson and Bass that persevered and got the line into the Snowbird Center,” added Hanson.   Eventually, Alta realized that expansion was imminent, and they decided to buy into the system.  The town of Alta was allotted 25% of the lines capacity, and the Service Area’s purpose became to provide water, sewage, and fire protection for the whole of Little Cottonwood Canyon.  Developing a vast and efficient water collection and management system was also a priority of the Service Area.  However, the first year that Snowbird was open, they ran out of water during the Christmas holidays.  It soon became apparent that maintaining this network would be the crux towards further expansion in the canyon.

While mining in the Cottonwoods had been detrimental to overall water quality, the intricate series of underground tunnels, shafts, and reservoirs that were created became the saving grace of the entire system.  The task set before Hanson when he arrived in 1985 seemed immense and insurmountable.  Fortunately, his keen engineering skills and latent creativity allowed him and the Service Area to further increase the system’s holding capacity, as well as tap into the existing infrastructure that was built nearly a century before.  The Wasatch Drain Tunnel was constructed between 1912 and 1916 and stretched from just west of Alta in Little Cottonwood all the way to Cardiff Fork in Big Cottonwood.  The drain tunnel connected nearly 50 miles of mining tunnels and shafts to facilitate the transport of ore and other materials out of the mines.  Interestingly, early postman used the tunnel to deliver mail between Alta and Brighton. The tunnel’s purpose eventually turned from transportation to collection as the mining boom petered out, and under Hanson’s direction, it soon became the keystone of water management in the canyon.  Engineering a bulkhead near the mouth of the tunnel allowed Hanson to harness the vast quantities of water that would eventually build up behind it.  Moving a 20-foot thick concrete and steel bulkhead nearly a half-mile underground was no easy task, and the crew actually flooded the tunnel two feet deep and floated it into place. In addition to regulating the canyon water, a prime concern was removing the mineral contaminants like lead and cadmium before use.  Although the water was free of biological contamination, the mineral content was enough to make you sick, not to mention turn all the sheets orange at the Cliff Lodge from the washing machines.

While Hanson and the Service Area were occupied with an array of important projects, members of the watershed management team were dealing with their ever-expanding responsibilities.  Incorporating Parley’s Canyon was the next piece of the puzzle for ensuring that the city could meet the water demands of future generations. The construction of Mountain Dell and Little Dell reservoirs furthered the watershed’s capability to collect and store water for use in Salt Lake City. With these new additions, the city would receive roughly 60% of its culinary water from four out of the seven canyons.  The other 40% was split relatively evenly between Deer Creek Reservoir and underground springs and wells throughout the east bench.  With a strong infrastructure in place, the management of the entire system became critical to ensuring that Salt Lake citizens received the cleanest and least expensive water possible.  However, implementing and enforcing regulations in the watershed also became a very difficult and sensitive subject to breach to the public.

Common questions of many residents and visitors to the area revolve around the seemingly strict rules that the watershed imposes.  Why can’t I bring my dog? Why can’t I swim in the mountain lakes? Why can’t I pee on that tree or camp in that area?  Florence Reynolds, a 25-year veteran of Watershed Management and the Water Quality and Treatment Administrator, succinctly said, “We just don’t have the luxury of time.”  Reynolds is referring to the time it takes for the water to reach the treatment facilities.  “It only takes about 12 hours for water from Silver Lake in Big Cottonwood to reach the treatment facility at the mouth of the canyon,” added Reynolds.  This means that biological and chemical contaminants don’t have time to deteriorate, and thus create more of a strain on the treatment plants.  In man-made reservoirs such as Deer Creek, the contaminants have time to settle out before they are carried downstream.  “It is unique to Utah that people are even allowed to recreate in watersheds. In nearly every other state, watersheds are off-limits to the public,” said Nelson.  The present methods employed by the treatment facilities are quite primitive and cost effective.  If regulations of the area were lifted, the resulting flood of contaminants to the system would require much more advanced and costly treatment processes.  Currently, Salt Lake City enjoys very reasonable water pricing compared to the national average.  “Not only is the water inexpensive, it is very clean,” said Hanson.  Patrick Nelson went on to say,” what people don’t realize is that the watershed and the service areas are the cost saving division for the valley citizens.  Additionally, $1.50 of each water bill goes toward the purchase of more land for watershed use.”

Proposed legislation, such as the Wasatch Wilderness and Watershed Protection Act (H.R. 5009) popularized by Congressman Jim Matheson, has instigated a considerable amount of public outcry.  Under the proposal, nearly 26,000 acres of land would be set aside for wilderness and special management areas.   Certain individuals and overly dramatic activist groups applaud the bill and cite its stringent regulations as wildlife-savers.  Other private landowners see it as a way for the government to further control water rights and access to land.  Most reasonable people are somewhere in the middle, straddling an ever-shrinking piece of rational real estate.  The bottom line is the community needs to come to an understanding that environmental stewardship and public education are the keys to reaching a compromise between development and preservation.  “It seems that a lot of folks are guilty of loving it to death.  They don’t consider the impact they have on the entire system,” said Reynolds.

As the conversations continue, the public needs to engage themselves in the development process and speak up about the future of their water supplies.  A great deal of what changes come about is a direct result of community surveys and the number one concern over the past decade has been water quality.  To further that end, Watershed Management has launched the “Keep it Pure” campaign.  The main message of the campaign has been “Don’t Shred the Shed”, and informational signage has been placed throughout the watershed to inform residents and visitors about the importance of protecting the area.  There are also educational assemblies put on for fourth and ninth graders around the valley to reach the youth and instill a sense of value and stewardship toward their natural surroundings.  The Cottonwood Canyons Foundation (CCF) is another non-profit funded that promotes educational outreach.  A great deal of funding for the CCF comes from resorts, as it is in their best interests to develop solid relationships with environmentalists and the city to ensure future economic viability.  Check out www.cottonwoodcanyons.org for more info.

While it is hard to believe that we need to worry about water when it appears so abundant this year, maintaining a thoughtful outlook and a mentality of conservation will be critical towards the sustained growth of Utah and its vast recreational opportunities.  If you’d like to learn more about the watershed or its policies and regulations, visit www.slcgov.com/utilities/watershed.htm.

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