City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

May 28, 2017

May 27th

Will the Great Salt Lake Disappear? – Part II

5:00 p.m. Since city residents have driven to dispersed recreation parks far from the valley, the valley has emptied and there are few cars in the parking lot. In the pre-automobile era, they would come to the canyon during May holidays. In 1908, a newspaper reported that “thousands of people” spent the day strolling in City Creek (Salt Lake Herald, May 8, 1908). As car culture developed from the 1920s through end of the century, the canyon became less of a focus for city resident’s holiday outdoor recreation. An old postcard in my grandmother’s family album records how in 1927, my great-grandparents drove the new Lincoln Highway from Ohio to Salt Lake City in their new Ford Model-T, and then drove up the then open road to Sun Dial Peak and Lake Blanche at 9,500 feet. I like to nostalgically imagine that they also took a moment to drive up the canyon that I jog today.

But today, the canyon is almost empty. There are even fewer evening birds and along the first mile, I primarily hear the string of Warbling vireos interspersed with a few Song sparrows and American robins. The raptors are gone; butterflies are absent except for three. Woods rose that opened just a few days ago has begun to drop its leaves, but given the 100 rose plants along the first mile road, I believe more will open as the season progresses. Blossoms on the Solomon’s stars near mile 0.6 have grown from having only one or two blooms to having grown complex conical inflorescences. Arrowleaf balsamroot in the lower canyon has lost its blooms.

* * * *

Continuing population growth and their need for future water keeps the scenario that the Great Salt Lake might disappear completely in the next thirty years within the scope of reasonable probability. Salt Lake County grew from about 900,000 to 1.1 million from 2000 to 2014, or about twenty percent, and Utah County to the south grew from 370,000 to 575,000, or about fifty percent between 2000 and 2015. From this growth, Salt Lake valley and Utah County to the south are quickly exhausting the 250,000 new acre feet of water received in 2007 from the eastern transbasin Central Utah Project, and plans have been made to develop and transport another 250,000 acre feet of water per year from the Bear River basin to the north (Wurtsbaugh et al 2016; Utah Division of Water Resources 2004). Utah’s population is projected to reach 5.5 million by 2050. The lake is a substantial source of economic activity in northern Utah, 1.2 billion USD in 2010 (Bioeconomics 2010), and that also puts pressure on state managers to accommodate both industry, recreation and wildlife both to maintain and to decrease the lake’s level.

The changes in the Great Salt Lake and projections for increasing population and decreasing lake levels did not go unnoticed by government, and the competing interests of preserving the lake’s current level for wildlife and accommodating economic growth were expressed in conflicts between and within state agencies as proxies for public stakeholder interests. In 2008, former Governor John Huntsman formed the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council to study issues relating to the lake. The Council made recommendations for preserving the level of the lake (Great Salt Lake Advisory Council, 2012 and 2017). State wildlife managers conducted studies of bird populations dependent on the Great Salt Lake marshes and started to form a Great Salt Lake bird conservation strategy (Don 2002 and 2012). The Utah Department of Natural Resources developed a lake management plan, but the plan, which contains a detailed, well-thought out assessment, generally only specifies that further studies will be conducted if the lake falls below specified future set points (Utah Department of Natural Resources 2015). As these events that favored preserving the lake for bird wildlife unfolded, the Utah Board of Water Resources moved forward with its plans to spend 2 billion to develop and withdraw 220,000 acre-feet of water from the Bear River that flows into the Great Salt Lake. In February 2016, Wurtsbaugh and colleagues issued their white paper warning that the area of the Great Salt Lake would decline by another 3 percent, or 30 square miles, and co-authors of the white paper included staff of the Utah Division of Water Resources, an agency supervised by the Utah Water Resources Board, and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. Utah Governor Gary Herbert formed a State Water Strategy Advisory Team that developed draft recommendations in September 2016 (Utah Water Strategy Advisory Team and Envision Utah, 2016). In January 2017, the Water Resources Board tabled its proposal to develop and withdraw water from the Bear River Basin after the private Utah Rivers Council demonstrated that the same amount of water could be developed from conservation at a much lower cost (Roth, January 23, 2017).

Much like the ongoing controversy between Salt Lake City and development interests over the Salt Lake valley watershed canyons (April 28th), the issue of whether the Great Salt Lake will remain as a viable stopping point for migratory birds traveling the eastern arm of the Pacific Flyway is one that will be revisited and re-fought periodically. The result may change in future, and then neotropical migrating birds seen in the canyon might decline dramatically and unexpectedly.

* * * *

On May 27th, 2012, the City has installed many speed limit and travel warning signs in City Creek Canyon to enforce an even-auto and odd-bicycle day policy (Salt Lake Tribune). One resident describes the number of regulatory signs as “overkill”, and another notes that the signs advising walkers to keep on the stream side of the road as “ineffectual” (id). (In 2017, infrequent walkers in the canyon, including many families pushing baby strollers, regularly ignore or are unaware of the policy of walkers keeping to the up-canyon right, or streamside of the road, and automobiles and bikers should keep the up-canyon left side of the road.) On May 27th, 1888, the Salt Lake Herald proposed that in addition to a proposed road up City Creek Canyon, that a boulevard be created from the Capitol to the creek and then along to 11th Avenue.

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