A drop of water that makes its way into a creek at the crest of the Wasatch Mountains comes out of a person’s tap 24 hours later—a whiplash-quick turnover that makes Salt Lake City’s watershed among the most unique, clean and delicate in the country.
Few watersheds have such brisk turnaround time. And so the need to keep the water that churns down the area’s creeks clean is of utmost importance to water-quality officials.
The water that flows through Utah’s creeks, like Little and Big Cottonwood, which reliably comes each winter in the form of snow, has historically been abundant. But Salt Lake officials charged with protecting this sprawling watershed, which 340,000 people rely upon, say two key threats face the Wasatch watershed: Population growth and climate change.
There is only so much water in these mountains, but their popularity for recreational users is unprecedented. City officials say the Wasatch-Cache National Forest, which encompasses the watershed, is among the five most heavily used in the nation.
And with ever more people settling in the Salt Lake Valley, the demand placed on this stretch of jagged granite peaks will grow. With every footprint and new hiking trail formed—and with every ski lift, condominium and road built, there is an impact on the watershed.
“Anything that happens in the watershed has a pretty much immediate impact on what we see at the treatment plant,” says Laura Briefer, the city’s water resources manager. For example, Briefer says, the Big Cottonwood water-treatment plant was once unable to accept water for a time because a bulldozer was illegally operating in the creek, kicking up dirt and sullying the water.
In order to protect the watershed, Salt Lake City, through an agreement with the National Forest Service, has during the past 50 years instituted vigorous education efforts and implemented stringent rules on what can and cannot occur in the watershed.
A well-known rule is the prohibition of domestic pets in Big and Little Cottonwood canyons, and portions of City Creek and Parley’s canyons. Humans also aren’t allowed to bathe or wade in the creeks and high-mountain lakes that feed the watershed.
The acceptance of these rules by those who recreate in the Wasatch have ensured that the forest remains open to the public. Some watersheds, like the Bull Run watershed near Portland, are closed off entirely to human traffic.
A testament to the Wasatch watershed’s fragility occurred in summer 2013. According to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, July 2013 was far soggier than normal. And July 4, a monsoonal storm dumped 1.3 inches of rain in Salt Lake City. The Wasatch Mountains took the brunt of this, and the downpour flooded parts of Little Cottonwood Canyon, washing out road cuts and sending high concentrations of debris into the creek.
Briefer says the water was so dirty that it couldn’t be processed by the city’s water treatment plant at the mouth of the canyon. It took three days for the sediment to clear before the treatment plant began accepting water from the creek.
There was some concern during this event that the sewer line beneath the road had been damaged. If it had, Briefer says, the amount of time the plant would have had to go without water would have been greatly extended.
A storm of this magnitude is unusual for the Wasatch Mountains, and while Briefer says it’s impossible to link it directly to climate change, she and other city officials believe that this type of incident must be taken note of. Intense weather events like the July storms might become more common, Briefer says. And the Wasatch’s snowpack is extremely sensitive to temperature.
To that end, Briefer and the City of Salt Lake have taken a forward-thinking approach to climate change so that they have a good idea of what to expect for the watershed’s future.
Rising temperatures, Briefer says, will result in earlier peak run-off. Currently, peak run-off in the Wasatch is June. During peak water-use months, July and August, when temperatures are hottest, Salt Lake’s municipal water system must draw upon reserves, stored in various reservoirs. Right now, Briefer says, the current system is well thought out and covers needs. But if the snow pack melts earlier, and more of the area’s precipitation falls in the form of rain instead of snow, less of it will stay locked in the mountains and stored in reservoirs to cover water needs during the driest months.
An important part of stretching the viability of the Wasatch’s watershed long into the future is conservation. And over the past decade, Salt Lake’s efforts to encourage businesses and homeowners alike to save water have yielded results.
Stephanie Duer, the city’s water-conservation coordinator, says that much emphasis has been placed on reducing peak demand during the hottest, driest parts of the year. In 2000, the city’s peak demand for a single day reached 217 million gallons. But in the wake of water-conservation efforts, Duer says, this figure has hovered around 175 million gallons, though it reached 190 million on a day in June 2013.
By decreasing peak demand, Duer says, the city can stretch the lifespan of its current water infrastructure, which prevents construction of new projects and, ultimately, saves taxpayers money.
While there are myriad ways to save water, Duer is careful about what advice she gives. And she emphasizes that a one-size-fits-all approach to saving water doesn’t exist. For instance, if restrictions forbid homeowners from watering on certain days, some may water on the days they’re allowed to, simply because it’s allowed—even if their lawns don’t need to be watered.
Nevertheless, Duer says, it’s clear many people could be saving more water. She says clay soils, like those in the Salt Lake Valley, stop absorbing water after eight or 10 minutes. Anything above and beyond this rate is running into the gutter.
“I know we can do more and we can be more creative,” she says.
Duer suggests that homeowners take advantage of free sprinkler inspections, offered through water providers. The inspections, which take into account soil type, turf depth and sprinkler coverage, take about an hour and conclude with the inspector tailoring a watering plan for the landscape.
But residents really need to know that by making good decisions, Duer says, they can make a difference.
“I think what they don’t realize is the level with which their choices can have an impact,” Duer says. “You can’t have a dollar without a penny and I apply that to water. I think what we do matters.”
As Briefer looks to the future, she says she’s optimistic. And, like Duer, she says residents need to understand that whether it’s climate change, or tens of thousands of more skiers and hikers hitting the hills for recreation, everyone should know that their actions have an impact.
Briefer says she hopes people “recognize that every individual action has a consequence. And with the amount of people that recreate within these watersheds, there’s a much larger cumulative effect that we all have a part in.”
Read more about water issues that affect Utahns in City Weekly’s annual Green Guide, publishing April 17.