City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

March 10, 2017

March 10th

Filed under: Bicyclist, Moon, Owl, People — canopus56 @ 11:15 pm

City Creek’s Delta – Part I

7:00 p.m. I reach the canyon between dusk and dark under an overcast sky that obscures a full Moon. It is a night of exuberant wheelmen motivated by the coming change in seasons. Going up canyon, three skateboarders race down the canyon. The first two are dressed in tights and menacing helmets with darkened faceplates, and the third follows holding a cell phone. They are making a video for posting on the internet. The canyon is full of bicyclists. Going up canyon, many racing bicyclists whiz down canyon. After dark, there are up to twenty mountain bikers; they are equipped with bright LED lights and can ride in the dark. Some streak past yelling “pedestrian!” to others further behind. Many are riding up the Pipeline Trail, and due to the lack of leaves and their bright lights I can follow their progress. The clump in groups or looking up canyon, I can see several climbing the high Bonneville Shoreline Trail that goes to the ridge line. Two have become disoriented and are hacking their way through the brush between the Pipeline Trail and the paved road, not knowing that 100 yards away there is a trail between the two. I understand their excitement. When I was younger, I enjoyed the exhilaration of these fast bike rides down the canyon under a full Moon (Nov. 2nd), and it feels good to see another generation. Wheelman have frequently the canyon since the 1890s and the introduction of the safety bike. At mile 1.2, I can hear but not see wild turkeys and another unidentified bird with a warbling call. Near mile 0.2, I hear an owl on the south-east side of the creek, I cannot see it in the darkness, but from the sound I know it is perhaps twenty feet away. I stop and peer into the night, and owl stops calling. Then it spreads its great wings as it silently lifts in the forest canopy, and I just see its outline. Two hundred yards down canyon, it is again calling and its mate replies from the west side of the canyon.

After leaving the canyon, I drive past the intersection of South Temple (formerly “Brigham’s Street”) and State Street (formerly “First East”). On the southwest corner is Brigham Young’s 1850s residence, the Lion House. One can see why Young put his residence there. Looking down either State Street, one gets a grand view down to the valley floor two or three miles away. At night, the streets lights leading off in a straight line for several miles is dramatic. On the next street to the west, Main Street (formerly called “East Temple Street”), there is an statute of Young to the north of the intersection in which Young stands in an archetypal roman orator’s pose (called the “Brigham Young Monument”). At his feet are statutes of a Native American, e.g. the Ute Wakara, on one side and on the other, a statute of an early mountain man, e.g. Jim Bridger. On the backside of the statute is a plaque with the names of the 147 members of the July 24th advance party, including three “colored servants”. The monument was relocated from the middle of the intersection to the north sidewalk in the mid-2000s. A Salt Lake City resident insider joke is that Young points towards to his left and the front door of Zions Bank, the Latter Day Saint church owned financial institution, and not to the Mormon Temple, located over his right shoulder. He perpetually beckons tourists to bring their money to the bank, and then visit the church’s temple.

Both State and Main Streets along South Temple Street are elevated above the valley floor. Although obscured by modern skyscrapers, there is a slight east-west parabolic curve in the land between State and Main that trails off three blocks away to either side. This is delta of City Creek Canyon, and the ground consists of the excavated remnants of the negative space in what is now Memory Grove and the canyon below Bonneville Drive. The land in that space was eroded away as Lake Bonneville receded from its highest elevation to its current level between 11,000 and 7,000 years ago, and the earth was deposited in the delta. From this vantage point, Young could politically, spiritually, and physically keep an eye on his flock, and today, the skyscraper Church Office Building to the north of Lion House fulfills a similar role in Salt Lake L.D.S. Church members’ zeitgeist.

On arriving in the valley in 1847, one of early Church’s and Young’s earliest tasks was to channel City Creek in a series of open ditches (Bancroft, 262) in order to support the plan for an agrarian city of 5,000 to 7,000 of the earliest Mormon immigrants to the Mexican territory. By the end of 1847, there were 2,393 immigrants in the valley (id), and by the time of the 1850 census just less than 5,000 persons. They needed water. The parabolic topography of City Creek’s delta naturally lent the colonists to extend a main gravity fed aqueduct ditches to the east and west along North Temple Street and thence along north-south running ditches to individual homesteads. The rectangular grid plan adopted by the colonists was already well-known in the mid-19th century. It had already been used by the Greeks and the Romans, and the grid plan was also used before 1847 as the design of both Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. The north-south gravity fed ditches were a natural fit to a grid plan and it also fit with prior spiritual city designs by the Mormon prophet Smith. Smith envisaged a theodemocratic city laid out on a grid, that is a city led by religious elites with lower officers selected by election.

With the availability of hindsight of the minimum volume of water coming out of City Creek Canyon, about 32 acre-ft per day (1300 acre-ft per month) at its lowest, it is reasonable that the initial City of 7,000 persons would be sustainable (see Feb. 6th). Even at its lowest December flow of 32 acre-ft per day, there would be sufficient water to flood 384 acres or 38 ten acre blocks with one inch of water every day. Each ten acre block had 10 lots on a side and at five persons per household, City Creek alone could provide, without considering water from Red Butte or Emigration Canyons, sufficient water for 38 ten acre blocks containing 7,600 persons. Thirty-two acre-ft is about 10,400,000 gallons of water per day, or 1370 gallons of water per capita per day, and this seems sufficient on a per capita basis to meet the personal and agricultural needs of the first 7,600 immigrants along with their associated farm and labor animals. The 32 acre-feet per day is only a minimum. In June, the pre-water treatment plant creek peaks at about 3100 acre-feet per month, or about 100 acre-feet per day (about 32,600,000 gallons per day or 4,600 gallons per day per capita for 7,000 persons), and in late-summer September, the pre-water treatment plant historical flow is about 1450 acre-feet per month, or about 45 acre-feet per day. Including other water sources from Red Butte, Emigration and Parley’s Canyons, it was reasonable in 1847 to believe that a much larger city could be accommodated. A city plan of 1849 envisaged 291 ten-acre plots and 460 five-acre plots, and 800 acres of church farms, for a total of about 600 ten acre plots (Bancroft 290, ftn. 8).

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on March 10th, 1852, he sees a flock of 12 bluebirds, a sparrow and a blooming mountain plantain. Mosses and lichen are growing. March 10, 1853, he describes as the first real day of spring. He describes numerous shoots and plants blooming with green leaves. He sees minnows in a brook. On March 10th, 1854, he experiences heavy rains and captures a skunk. On March 10th, 1855, he sees the first expansion of willow buds. He describes how the first animal signs of spring come and go.

On March 10th, 1914, the City plans to install two measuring weirs in City Creek so the stream flow can be accurately determined (Salt Lake Tribune). On March 14, 1910, construction of the concrete underground conduit to hold City Creek, which is proceeding from south to north, has reached within 700 feet of the North end. It will be ready for spring runoff (Salt Lake City Herald).


February 11, 2017

February 11th

Filed under: Astronomy, Gambel's Oak, grass, Mule Deer, Owl, Weather — canopus56 @ 10:12 pm

Tough Plant – Part II

5:00 p.m. It rained throughout the night, ending with a brief laying of light snow on the ground. That snow quickly dissipated on the valley floor, and as drive to the canyon is a classic sunny Wasatch winter day. The valley is warm and free of snow, but the mountains are blasted white and stand majestic under the falling Sun. In the first mile of the canyon, the now snow free soils and trees have been soaked, and there colors are the most vivid tones of dark brown and grey. The soils are deep red-brown, and it greatly contrasts with the darker grey of the trees. Green grass shoots are everywhere, but at mile 1.2 where the Utah Conservation Corps did star-thistle abatement by clearing the land (Oct. 16th), patches are particularly green with new growth. Here, five mule deer browse. Only one looks up as I jog by 200 feet away. They can sense that the deer hunt is over until the fall. At milepost 1.5, Black Mountain sits covered in light snow reflecting the twilight. Two owls have returned to a side-canyon off near mile 1.3 after being absent for some weeks, and they exchange calls as night falls. Turning down canyon, a brilliant Venus is again hanging in the night sky, but as compared to a month ago has shifted to the west.

Quercus gambelii’s southern cousin, Quercus turbinnell Greene is equally tough, but in a different way. In Utah, Quercus gambelii prefers colder, moister habitats on northern facing slopes near water, but where the two species meet at the Utah Arizona border, Quercus turbinnell prefers hotter, drier south facing slopes (Ehelringer and Phillips). The responses of the two plants to differing moisture and heat stress is related to their respective physiology and metabolism. Quercus gambelii has deeper roots and its leaves stop respiration at higher temperatures (Ehelringer and Phillips). Quercus turbinnell has shallower roots, but sustains respiration at higher temperatures (id). As a result, Quercus turbinnell prefers habitats that have consistent summer rain like Arizona’s monsoon season, and Quercus gambelii better thrives in the lower temperature summers of Utah where its long roots can reach deeper aquifers during the rainless peak of Utah’s summer.

The two plants can be distinguished by their leaves: Quercus gambelii has large lobed leaves with smooth edges, and in contrast Quercus turbinnell has small leaves about one-third the size of gambelii with serrated edges (Frates).

Between the two species sits their rare hybird: Quercus gambelii x turbinnell. Its leaves are midway in size between gambelii and turbinnell, are lobed like gambelii but also serrated like turbinnell. Its ability to continue respiration is more similar to turbinnell (Ehelringer and Phillips at Fig. 3b). A small stand of Quercus gambelii x turbinnell can be found at Cottam’s Oak Grove at “This is the Place Monument Park” near the mouth of Emigration Canyon. Cottam noted that the cross hybird, like gambelii, also reproduce in northern Utah by rhizomal (root) clonal expansion (Cottam 1959).

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on February 11th, 1854, he again notes patches of snow fleas. On February 11th, 1856, he sees a partridge.

On February 11th, 1908, Lands and Water Commissioner Frank Matthews reported that City Creek needed to be maintained in a more sanitary condition. Conversely, he reported that 150,000 sheep travelled down Emigration Canyon and that the City sold 160 tons of hay farmed in Parley’s Canyon at Mountain Dell. (Salt Lake Telegram; Salt Lake Tribune, Feb. 12, 1908).

February 10, 2017

February 9th

Filed under: Owl, Weather — canopus56 @ 12:02 am

Distant Droughts

9:30 p.m. It is near a full Moon, overcast, and there is enough light have a late jog. The light is sufficient that I may see some wildlife at night. As I drive into the canyon, a young mule deer is grazing next to the road, but none are still seen within the canyon itself. Today, temperatures have reached into the sixties, and snow within the canyon is almost gone. At Pleasant Valley, where a week ago there was six to eight inches of snowpack, the ground is bare except for a few resistant piles of ice. As I run up the canyon, the air is a mixture of cold and warm wafts and rivers. The warm river smells like summer. Even so, the stream still has not risen substantially, and the water continues to be absorbed into the soil. At milepost 0.5, two owls, one on each side of the stream, engage in calls and responses. The call of the owl on the north-west side is high pitched and the pitch of the less frequent reply from the owl on the south-east side is much lower. I long for the mule deer and elk to return to the lower canyon that is now covered in green grass shoots.

Distant effect do not have to be limited to physical distance(Feb. 7th); distance can also occur in time. Recent precipitation patterns in Utah and the canyons should be considered in the broader historical climate context. In 2014, Bekker at Brigham Young University and DeRose at the U.S. Forest Service and colleagues reconstructed a 576 year streamflow time series for a northern Utah stream from tree rings for 1429 to 2004. For streams in their study, instrumented flow records only go back forty-five years, although in City Creek Canyon, such records go back seventy years to 1945. From the tree rings, Bekker et al found that persistent, severe droughts were far more prevalent in the distant past than in the 150 years of Euro-American presence in northern Utah. Bekker et al sought to provide a better, less uncertain characterization of drought and flood years for water managers in the Intermountain West and Utah, considering known extreme events such as the extended seven year drought of the 1930s and the extreme flooding of the 1980s. Of the 5th percentile driest years of the 576 since 1492, 2% of the 100 years in the 1900s where among the 5th percentile drought years, 6% in the 1700s, 7% of 100 in the 1500s and 9.6% of years from 1492 to 1500. Extreme drought events in the form of longer, extended and hotter periods are the norm. The Euro-American historical experience since 1847 has been a relatively wet, drought free anomaly. This provides perspective on what is “normal” precipitation in City Creek Canyon and Bekker’s study informs our perception of the Gambel oak forest.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on February 9th, 1852, he notes that eastern pokeweed seeds are eaten in winter birds. Pokeweed is a cultivar in Utah. February 9th, 1855, he records another downy woodpecker.

On February 9th, 1911, the Salt Lake Real Estate Association proposed building an electric power plant in City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Tribune).

February 7, 2017

February 7th

Filed under: Owl, Weather — canopus56 @ 8:44 pm

Distant Precipitation Causes

Corrected February 10th, 2017

External Link to Image

Pacific Quasi-Decadal Oscillation. Source: ENSO Blog Team, NOAA and National Climate Data Center. (2014).

5:30 p.m. It has rained for part of the morning and the canyon is full of earthy smells. Temperatures nearly reached sixty degrees Fahrenheit in the valley, and into the forties in the canyon. The top layer of the canyon bottom snow has disappeared by half and the hard rock of the bottom ice layer deposited in January is beginning to melt. As I exit the canyon in twilight, an unseen lone owl calls.

With respect to the heavy snowfall of January (Feb. 1st), variable annual precipitation in the canyon and northern Utah is related to remote, distant ocean temperature patterns. In 1997, Hare, Mantua and colleagues identified an ocean surface temperature pattern in the northern Pacific ocean denoted the “Pacific Quasi-Decadal Oscillation” (PQDO). Although less known than the El Nino and La Nina events in the south western Pacific, the PQDO has more significant and longer term implications for Utah and canyon snowfalls and stream flows. In the “warm” phase of the PQDO temperature pattern, ocean waters in eastern Pacific off Japan cool and waters off the western Pacific near the coast of the United States warm. Conversely, in the “cool” phase, ocean waters in eastern Pacific off of Japan warm and waters off the western Pacific near the coast of the United States cool. Both phases forces the jet stream into a new configuration, and cycles between phases occur in approximately 12 year intervals. Utah has its highest precipitation when the oscillation pattern changes from its warm to the cool phase and its greatest droughts when the oscillation changes from the cool phase to the warm phase. Those transitions are lagged about three years after the peak or troughs of the proceeding warm or cool phase. Previous transitions from the warm to cool phase occurred in 1925, 1947, 1977, and 1997. Since 1997, the oscillation has been stuck in an extended cool, or drought phase (ENSO Team, PDO Chart), and in 2016, meteorologists disagree on whether the cool phase is again transitioning back into the warm, and hence for Utah, a higher precipitation phase and rising Great Salt Lake levels.

In 2010, Wang and colleagues at the Utah State University associated the Pacific Quasi-Decadal Oscillation with a northern Utah three-year leading precipitation and a six year leading level of the Great Salt Lake (Wang, Fig. 4 at 2166). In the association with the level of the Great Salt Lake, PQDO warm phase peaks are associated with the lowest lake levels and PQDO cool phase troughs are associated with the highest lake levels. In 2013, DeRose, Wang and colleagues used tree rings to reconstruct the level of the Great Salt Lake back to 1429, and they associated the lake’s level to the pacific oscillation back to 1700. The PQDO’s connection to Utah precipitation and the Great Salt Lake is an association, not a cause, and the PQDO itself is an effect without a fully understood mechanism of action. In recent years, the PQDO has been good for Utah. While California has suffered severe drought, the PQDO has kept annual precipitation relatively higher in Utah (IWWA Project). But the Pacific Quasi-Decadal Oscillation illustrates that long-term changes in weather in the canyon, including annual precipitation, snowfall and stream flow, are related to, if not controlled by, distant events in the eastern Pacific Ocean 6,000 miles away. These distant events affect the abundance of plants and animals that I see during daily visits to the canyon.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on February 7th, 1859, he observes lichens. On February 8th, 1841, Thoreau states that in keeping a nature journal, he writes for the purpose of appreciating nature and not for the sake of writing itself.

On February 7th, 1918, the City authorized $1,000 requested by Commissioner Clarence C. Nelson to plant trees in City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Herald). On February 7th, 1900, the mayor and the City laws committee was authorized to seek through the U.S. Congress cession to the City of all federal lands in City Creek, Emigration and Parley’s Canyons (Deseret Evening News). City Engineer Kesley obtained approval to replace the City Creek water main with a larger 32-inch pipe. The City Public Grounds committee declined to lease land in City Creek for a gravel pit (id).

January 17, 2017

January 16th

Filed under: mile 0.5, milepost 1.5, Mule Deer, Owl, Sounds — canopus56 @ 4:18 am

Owl Calls

5:00 p.m. The city air is increasingly poor as the inversion layer builds, and the bad air seeps up into the canyon. I endeavor to jog high enough to reach above it, and since it is a holiday, there are many runners on the road with the same goal. On a late evening jog to milepost 1.5, there are two deer grazing at mile 0.3 on the snow melted south wall of the canyon. Because it is a holiday, there is no city rumble. The noise feels at a minimum, but I measure background noise at 40 decibels. Footfalls can be heard as individual steps for each passerby. Near milepost 1.0, I photograph the sawed-off end of a large tree trunk, intending in the future to count its rings. In the silence at milepost 1.5, the two owls heard on January 11th again call to each other in the twilight. Going down canyon, a third is heard near mile 0.4.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on January 16th, 1857, he describes sedge grass encased in a thick layer of ice. On January 16th, 1860, he describes a feeding technique of sparrows. They grab branches and shake them to cause the seeds to fall to the ground.

On January 16th, 1878, a group of citizens led by H.P. Kimball had proposed to the city that the city lay a waterline over the City ridge, probably to the high Avenues. The Avenues were then called the “Dry Bench” because homeowners had to haul water by hand to their homes from the lower Avenues. A committee appointed by the City Council to examine the matter did not recommend adoption of the proposal (Salt Lake Herald).

January 12, 2017

January 11th

Filed under: Colors, mile 1.2, Owl, River birch, Smells, Weather — canopus56 @ 1:52 am

Water Birch Bark

3:00 p.m. Temperatures remain in the high forties, and in the morning there is heavy rain shower. Eighty-percent o the snow has been stripped from both canyon walls, and even in the shaded road, the snow is half gone. The air is smells heavy with moisture and the earth. The bark of the river or water birch trees have changed to a light silver color. I compare today’s color with a photograph taken on September 23rd, and during the summer and autumn, the bark of the same tree at picnic site 3 was dark gray.

7:00 p.m. During a second jog in the dark, at mile 1.2 two owls are having a call and response session. I cannot locate them by sound other than to obtain a general direction. Their low-pitched calls travel great distances.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on January 11th, 1852, he sees green patches of light in overcast sky at sunset. On January 11th, 1859, he records a -22 degree Fahrenheit temperature and hears the frozen ground loudly cracking open. On January 11th, 1861, Thoreau examines the contents of a crow shot by a neighbor in order to during the crow’s diet. He finds apples, berries, acorns, the bones of small animals and a pebble.

Blog at