City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

May 5, 2017

April 28th

Filed under: Pleasant Valley, Stream — canopus56 @ 12:58 pm

The Never Ending Task

Noon. It has been warm this morning, but as I begin today’s jog a front moves in uncharacteristically from the northeast. It is counter-clockwise spin of another winter-like low pressure system, and with its arrival temperatures drop twenty degrees and cold rain falls. I notice today that there is an inconsistent flow above and below Pleasant Valley. There is more flow coming out of Pleasant Valley at mile 1.1 than goes into it at mile 1.7. In 1881, a city officer first recognized that about one-third of City Creek’s flow was seeping through the creek bottom at Pleasant Valley (Salt Lake Herald, August 9th, 1888), and in 1896, the city first proposed and then subsequently rip-rapped the stream bottom up to Pleasant Valley in order to reduce the loss (Salt Lake Herald, July 27th, 1896, July 26th, 1913). Could this work in reverse during spring rains? Are the heavy rains on the surrounding hillsides of the last few days, which are approximately of uniform height through mile 3.4, percolating through the rock and recharging the stream?

* * * *

On April 6th, I noted that the dominate Mormon society will have more future choices to make regarding the preservation of their canyons, including City Creek Canyon. It seems this is a never-ending battle. In this month’s issue of a local newsletter, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and Councilperson Erin Mendenhall comment on current efforts of a Utah state legislative commission, the Utah Quality Growth Commission, to remove the state authority to pass ordinances to protect water quality in watersheds outside of the City’s boundaries (Utah Code Ann. 10-8-15 (2016)). Although that state authority has existed since first granted by the Territorial legislature and before statehood, implied supplemental authority was granted by the United States Congress in 1914 (March 13th, Public Law 63-199, see Public Law 73-259). The impetus for the Commission studying the proposal are real estate developers and a private inhold landowners in public Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons whose development opportunity is limited by the City’s refusal to grant them additional City-owned water permits. In response, Biskupski and Mendenhall noted that,

“For decades, critics of our protective approach have tried to chip away at Salt Lake City’s watershed management. But our hard line grew out of experience In the 1930s and into the 1940s, the City Creek Canyon watershed was contaminated through recreation overuse and grazing. This contamination led to a typhoid fever outbreak, making hundreds ill and causing several deaths. As a result, City Creek Canyon was closed to all public access and uses from 1950 through 1962. Fifty-five years later, the canyon is treasured by the public for recreation although certain restrictions are in place that successfully protect water quality.”

“Salt Lake City has heeded lessons on water quality disasters, and has prioritized the protection of our watersheds to avoid risk. This includes regulation, investment in land restoration, land preservation, stream restoration, sanitary facilities and watershed education. As a result, our drinking water is clean, and we have avoided public health disasters and economic impacts from water contamination that have so profoundly affected other communities.”

. . . .

“An ongoing and one-sided conversation about Salt Lake City’s watershed protection policies was initiated last summer by the Utah Quality Growth Commission. This effort is fueled by water speculators and land developers critical of Salt Lake City’s watershed regulation. The goal of some of the commission and the handful of developers is to change Utah Code 10-8-15 . . . Weakening this law will restrict our ability to protect our drinking water sources from pollution.” (Biskupski and Mendenhall, April 2017, Utah Code Ann. 10-8-15).

In a draft issue analysis paper, the Utah Quality Growth Commission outlined various objections to the one-hundred years of City’s protection of water quality along the Wasatch Front canyons,

“Authority granted by the state must protect the public health, welfare, safety, recreation and economic growth of the state and be science based. . . . . County and State Residents are disenfranchised by the extra-territorial jurisdiction. . . . . No scientific justification has been advanced for increasing the watershed jurisdiction beyond the standard municipal jurisdiction of 300 feet on either side of the creek for 15 miles or 1100 acres. . . . . [No scientific evidence] is ever offered by Salt Lake City for regulations like . . . prohibiting wading in streams. . . . Despite Surplus Water being available, Salt Lake City refuses to sell water to anyone in Big or Little Cottonwood Canyons. This prohibition on new water connections has been in place since 1991. . . . . Salt Lake City Water Empire. Salt Lake City’s used and unused water holdings are so massive that Salt Lake City has effective control of much of Utah’s water.” (Utah Quality Growth Comm. Sept. 9, 2016, pp. 2-8)

This continuing conflict of between the general public, who favors preserving the Wasatch Front Canyons in a less developed state for its watershed and recreation values, and wealthy real estate and business interests, who seek to turn the canyons into another version of Vail, Colorado, is fueled by small-lot private in-holdings. These can be turned into luxury ski cabins worth millions of dollars, as has occurred in the Park City, Utah drainage to the east (Salt Lake Tribune, Jan. 23, 2017). Local attorney Patrick Shea noted that, “When there is that kind of economic disparity of values, the vultures of development want to swoop in in search of profit regardless of the impact to watershed” (Salt Lake Tribune, Jan. 23, 2017).

This long-simmering controversy between real estate development interests, the City, and Wasatch Front residents seems to have no end. The City, directly and through the Metropolitan Water District created in the 1930s by popular elections along the entire Wasatch Front, has water-banked substantial reserves and does use its power, along with other cities along the Front, to restrict development in the watershed. In this they are supported by ordinary citizens. The present controversy is reminiscent of the 1870s between Brigham Young and Robert Baskin (March 21st and April 1st, above). In the current cycle, the City is being cast as Brigham Young and faceless real estate interests and few notable small lot holders having taken on the roll of Baskin. The arguments advanced on both sides focus on water pollution and water quality, but the discourse ignores the lessons learned from the storm floods of the 1920s and 1930s. Removal or small areas of coverage at the headwaters of Wasatch Front Range canyons leads to devastating downstream floods during cloudburst storm events (Bailey, Cottam 1945, Forsling, Utah Flood Commission, April 6th, above). Given the federal watershed grants of 1914 and 1934, if the City’s right to protect watershed is curtailed, all of the other Wasatch Front Canyons may be dramatically changed. But City Creek Canyon should remain the same, since the City has acquired almost all of the land above mile 0.3 of the road. City Creek, unlike the other canyons, is not plagued by numerous private in-holdings.

* * * *

On April 28th, 1920, the $3,300,000 special water issue bond was defeated (Salt Lake Herald). On April 28th, 1916, the City Commission decided to use only prison labor to finish the scenic boulevard around City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Telegram). On April 28th, 1908, Mark Aaron, a prison laborer working on the City Creek Road was shot and killed while trying to escape (Deseret Evening News). He was serving a 90 day sentence for vagrancy. The officer claimed he was aiming a Aaron’s legs, but hit Aaron in the head instead.

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