City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

May 18, 2017

May 14th

Filed under: Ants, Cricket, European earwig, Maple tree, People, Pleasant Valley, Raptor, Spider, Unidentified — canopus56 @ 4:32 pm

First Cricket

2:30 p.m. In the lower canyon, there are no butterflies except for one dusky brown and no songbirds. The song birds have moved to the warmer air at Pleasant Valley, and there I hear six or seven calling unseen from the groves. The first cricket of the season is heard at the lower field in Pleasant Valley. In two months, their chorus will be as loud as the song birds. Near mile 0.4, in the disease hollowed-out base of a 50 foot tall Red maple tree, a 1.5 millimeter black and brown spider has spun a web over the hollow’s entrance. A live victim struggles in its web. At the edges of the road, several one-half inch odd black bugs are active. They have a many-segmented abdomen and small pincers near their tails. These are immature European earwigs (Forficula auricularia). At the slightest disturbance, they bolt beneath rotting leaves. They have come to feed on smaller insects, like aphids. Three small black-winged ants are also dispersed evenly along the first mile. These may be male Carpenter ants searching for a new queen.

It is Mother’s Day and the canyon road, normally frequented by runners and ultra-bicyclists, is full of the unfit. The obese and elderly enjoy the canyon with more attention to their surroundings than the racers. After a clear and sunny morning, the evening canyon is overcast. The stream runs at maximum; the flood retention pond is within four feet of cresting the road even though this is not a flood year; and water streams five or six inches smoothly above the rock barrier that makes the pond at picnic site 5. As an experiment, I through progressively larger junks of wood into the swift moving waters, and from this the stream moves at an estimated twelve to fifteen miles per hour, about the speed of a bicycle on flat terrain. A bicyclist returning at a leisurely pace from the end of the road at mile 5.75 can run parallel to the same drop of stream water for one-half hour. On my United States Geological Service map for the canyon, the two ridgelines on either side of the canyon are collectively labelled the “Salt Lake Salient”, i.e. – a piece of land that juts out at an angle. In this case, the canyon and its two ridgelines jut out a forty-five degree angle from the larger wall of the Wasatch Front Mountain Range, and this northern salient defines the upper end of the Salt Lake Valley. At its southern end, another salient, the Traverse Ridge, juts out at a right angle, and it marks the valley’s lower end. Both are generated by earthquake faults, but in the case of City Creek, the fault line partially runs down the middle of the salient. Unlike Traverse Ridge, this allowed water to gain a foothill, to split the salient in two, and to crave out the cooler canyon below.

This evening, along the western ridgeline about a third of a mile away, a flock of 10 unidentified raptors are soaring on the wall’s updraft. They are two distant to identify, and over the next ten minutes, the recede up-canyon until the small points of their bodies can no longer be seen against the grey sky.

On May 14th, 1903, E. H. Airis sued the City to prevent it from diverting City Creek Canyon water such that Airis would not longer have irrigation water (Salt Lake Tribune). On May 14th, 1896, the Salt Lake Herald reported several active mines in City Creek Canyon (May 14, 1896).

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March 13, 2017

March 13th

Filed under: Butterfly, gnats, People, Robin, Spider — canopus56 @ 7:27 pm

Flooding of City Creek’s Delta – Part IV

External Link to Image

Source: Natural Resources Conservation Service (2017). SNOTEL Reporting System (data); Salt Lake Tribune, April 29, 2011 and June 1983. The horizontal lines represent in acre-feet per month, the capacity of North Temple storm water conduit and the State Street City Creek conduit before and after the floods of 1983.

4:00 p.m. It is another warm Monday, and the canyon, which usually will be empty on first workday of the week, is still overflowing with walkers, families, groups of hiking young men, runners, and bicyclists. It is the pent up energy dissipating from winter indoor living. From this influx of people who do not regularly visit the canyon, a collection of clothing builds up pinned to the community posting board at the gate: a glove, a case for glasses, a winter dog sock, a child’s sock, a hat, a sweater, some socks. It is seven days to spring, and March, like February, is turning out unseasonably hot. The high temperatures end the “Great Concentrator” (Dec. 29): the cold of winter. Four early orange brown butterflies are seen, and backlighting from the down-canyon Sun reveals many gnats and the silk of spiders in the trees. The chickadees have dispersed along with other birds, and the canyon has little bird life other than two robins at Guardhouse Gate. At mile 0.3, there is small cultivar tree next to the road that is covered in galls, and none of the surrounding trees have been attacked. Near mile 0.2, I notice a young red osier dogwood that at the end of one small twig has formed an enormous one inch gall. This is the immune system of trees and bushes at work.

While earlier City Creek delta flooding events can be partially attributed to inadequate or technological limits of civil engineering and political disputes of the time, another major lesson of northern Utah flooding through the 1930s is that the flooding was caused by denuding watersheds of trees and grasslands through lumber production and sheep and cattle grazing (Honker 1999 at 32-39, Cottam 1947). By the 1930s, over four million sheep and cattle grazed in Utah (Cottam 1947). On May 30th, 1926, E.C. Shepard, the supervisor of the Wasatch National Forest, and Frederick S. Baker, forest examiner, reported that in Utah, 434,404 cattle, 2,821,308 sheep and 20,000 horses grazed on forest lands (Salt Lake Telegram, Cottam 1947). Baker credited water protection against over-grazing as to why City Creek did not flood as severely as torrential floods in Willard and Farmington. In response to the floods of the 1920s and 1930s, numerous studies found that removal or small areas of coverage at the headwaters of Wasatch Front Range canyons through improper grazing practices leads to devastating downstream floods during extreme weather events (Bailey, Cottam 1945, Forsling, Utah Flood Commission).

Historically, severe floods in northern Utah have led to a cycle of report generation (e.g. Potter, Bailey, Cottam 1945, Utah Flood Commission), reform proposal (e.g. Utah Flood Commission, Cottam 1945), and subsequent public amnesia and inaction (Honker 1994, 1999, Park). The floods of the late 1800s led in the early 1900s to proposals for a forest reserve system (Park) and Interior Secretary Pinochet establishing Utah national forest reserves, including the Wasatch Cache National Forest (Honker 1999). On 1894, a new City administration adopted a maintenance program to regularly clear City Creek’s bed of tree debris (Salt Lake Herald, January 31, 1894). Floods of the early 1900s led to transfer of watershed authority in City Creek and the other Salt Lake valley canyons to the City in order to promote culinary water protection and reforestation (Public Law 63-199, Public Law 73-259). The U.S. Forest Service established a tree nursery in Big Cottonwood Canyon that produced up to four million seedlings per year for use throughout Intermountain west forests (Intermountain Republican, April 23, 1908). The City adopted numerous watershed protection practices and partially reforested City Creek, but not Emigration Canyon (Salt Lake Tribune, May 1, 1918).

After each flood, the lesson of the need to preserve and reforest trees and vegetation at the headwaters of all of the Salt Lake Valley canyons was forgotten. In 1902, Albert Potter of the United States Forestry Division toured Utah and surveyed the conditions of public and and the attitudes of local farmers and ranchers towards conservation (Potter; Honker 1994). He recorded how Utahans after flood of the late 1800s and early 1900s made the connection between denuding canyons through livestock grazing and lumbering and subsequent flooding, and while some supported conservation, many maintained the necessity for continued grazing. From historical records, Hull estimated that Great Basin ranges were stripped of their native perennial grasses and were replaced from larger sagebrushes and saltbrushes in 10 or 15 years (Hull 1976, cited in Barbour and Billings 2000 at pp. 263-264). From the early 1880s to the 1920s, over a million sheep grazed in northern Utah, denuded the landscape, and several hundred thousand made an annual trip down Emigration Canyon (Cottam 1947; Potter; Bailey). Fires were intentionally set to clear areas of trails and grazing (Utah Flood Commission at 42-43). That led to the floods of the late 1920s and early 1930s. From the 1900s to the 1940s, City Creek remained a popular escape for numerous City residents from the summer heat and vegetation suffered from over-use (Hooten). From the 1950s to the 1960s, the City closed City Creek to all public entry as a water quality protection measure and to give the canyon time to renew lost vegetation (Hooten). But the City grew lax in its clearance of tree debris from the City Creek stream bed, and in the floods of 1983, tree debris clogged the main storm water sewer and flooded the business district. Explosives had to be used to clear the blockage (Salt Lake Tribune, June 1983).

After the flood of 1983, the City designated City Creek as a permanent recreation and watershed recreation area (Salt Lake City 1986), installed the flood retention ponds at Bonneville Drive and the canyon entrance to trap tree debris, and increased the capacity of the underground conduits that move City Creek past downtown from 90 cubic feet per second to 210 cubic feet per second (Salt Lake Tribune, April 29, 2011 and June 1983) by expanding the conduit under North Temple Street. In terms of monthly flows, the new monthly discharge capacity of 12,495 acre-feet per month comfortably exceeds historic maximum monthly flow of 8,358 acre-feet (Natural Resources Conservation Service SNOTEL data, 2017), but the daily discharge capacity of 210 cubic feet per second is far below the maximum recorded daily discharge rate of 322 cubic feet per second (Salt Lake City Dept. of Public Utilities 2017).

Another opportunity to expand the discharge capacity of the storm sewers were passed up. In 2003, the City received a $50,000 USD grant to examine raising City Creek from its underground conduit and having a raised streambed exit the City along North Temple through the westside (Deseret News, Aug. 1, 2003). A more detailed plan by the Army Corps of Engineers envisaged moving City Creek along North Temple from 300 West to the Jordan River along a proposed abandoned railway in an large urban park (Love 2007), but the estimated cost was $20 million USD (Deseret News, Aug. 1, 2003), and nothing was done. Through 2017, the railway line was not abandoned, the westside was made the site of a regional commuter rail hub, and the railway is an even more important hub of the City’s freight and regional transportation infrastructure. By dedicating this western exit route to other purposes, future efforts to find a wider bed with enough capacity to carry City Creek’s flood waters past the downtown will be more expensive and complex. That increased capacity will be need seems likely given the new Bekker et al 2014 estimates for peak storm and flood events (March 16th).

Since the post-1983 improvements, the City has grown lax in removing tree debris and the creek bed between Guardhouse Gate and milepost 1.5 is refilling with fallen trees (Personal observation). Although City Creek is now a nature preserve where no timber clearing occurs, in other Wasatch Canyons, large ski resorts and residential cabins have renewed the process of removing trees (Personal observation).

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on March 13th, 1858, he comments that morning skies have a deeper red color. On March 13th, 1855, he finds four mice nests where the snow has retreated. On March 13th, 1859, he sees a small flock of blackbirds.

On March 13th, 1920, the Salt Lake Herald urged the creation of a public park at the mouth of City Creek Canyon.

February 14, 2017

February 14th

Filed under: Blacked-Headed Chickadee, Common stonefly, Gambel's Oak, gnats, Spider — canopus56 @ 6:19 pm

Mega Tree

2:00 p.m. It is another in a series of brisk, sunny late winter days in the mid-forties. The snow in the lower canyon has left the ground except in small patches. Responding to the warmer weather, the flock of Black-capped chickadees near mile 0.3 to 0.6, now plays in more dispersed groups. In the depths of winter, they remain closer to each other. Another songbird is heard, but not seen. At mile 1.1, I look into a stream that is flowing freely, but about one month ago, here the stream was frozen in a solid milky mass. The stream itself is running lower, but is now clear and does not contains the fine particles seen yesterday. In one tree backlit by sunlight, a single strand of gossamer silk indicates that a spider was active. Two gnats and a stonefly are seen, and near mile 0.8, earlier in the day, a small beetle tried, but failed to completely cross the road. As I arrive home, a favorite tree is full of noisy European house sparrows, and the filling of this tree with a large flock is a sign that I usually take as a first precursor of the coming spring.

In southern Utah outside of Cedar City is the world’s largest single living organism: a stand of aspen trees named “Pando” (DeWoody et al). Aspens reproduce by root cloning, and Pando has been expanding for possibly 80,000 years until reaching its current mass of six million kilograms. The stand of trees is one organism connected by a series of underground roots. In northern Utah, neighboring Gambel’s oaks also reproduce asexually by clonal root extension and are connected by system of extensive clones with fused grafting roots (Neilson and Wullstein, 1986 at 298; Neilson and Wullstein, 1983 at 295; Cottam; Tiedemann, Clary and Barbour). As I jog by the Gambel oak stand between Guardhouse Gate and mile 0.3, I am passing hundreds of individual trees or just one large plant? Although biologists refer to these stands as “extensive clones” (Feb. 10th), I am unable to find any genetic investigation that sought to determine if Gambel’s oak stands form massive single organisms like southern Utah’s aspen named Pando.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on February 14th, 1854, he observes black-capped nuthatches, a downy woodpecker, and chickadees all feeding in the same area. He hears tit mice calling. On February 14th, 1857, he observes that during a thaw, many caterpillars are crawling on snow.

December 7, 2016

December 7th

Speckled Snow

1:30 p.m. December 2nd, 2016. Back on December 2nd, I am doing a very slow jog in order to closely scan the trees for birds’ nests. This is a good time of year to look for nests: the trees have lost all of their leaves and the low angle of the afternoon Fall sunlight brings out details that might otherwise be missed. I plan a survey route. I have on December 1st, I jogged the pipeline trail parallel to the road between guardhouse gate and Pleasant Valley at mile 1.2. Today, I will jog through the snow covered dirt road and trail along the south side of the canyon between mile 1.2 and the end of Pleasant Valley at mile 1.7, then up the road to mile 2.2, and then back down the road along the pipeline trail that parallels the road on the north side back to mile 1.2. I will end up with another close look at the road between mile 1.2 and the gate.

Jogging along the dirt road and trail between mile 1.2 and 1.7 is hard going because the road is covered in six inches of snow, but it is rewarding. Overnight temperatures have dropped into the teens, and as a result, the surface of fresh snow is covered in the beginnings of surface hoarfrost. The hoar crystals are only between one or three millimeters in size, and this surface reflects the sun in hundreds of thousands of speckled flashes. Although the Moon is new, this same effect is spectacular under a full Moon.

The snow records the movements of unseen birds and mammals. I can easily follow how the deer have come down from the south canyon wall (November 25th), crossed the canyon floor, and started up towards their winter critical grazing fields on the north canyon ridgeline. The movements of smaller mammals that I have seen previous years are also revealed. A hair’s tracks cross the trail and climb up a slope towards the road, but is stopped by a thicket, reverses, comes back down, and then succeeds in its climb by an alternative route. Further on, the tracks of a fox are found and are distinguished by the clear imprints of its small claws. A small, very light bird has landed on the snow and barely made an imprint. It hopped once, turned to the left, and then took off again.

This small half-mile stretch of fresh hoar covered snow is a trivial and faint reminder of experiences in the high Wasatch Front Mountain Range where tracks of such snow can be found for one or two miles. Backcountry skiers hunt for this snow on slopes that drop a thousand feet or more. It has a unique sound and feel. It does crackle or crunch underfoot; it compacts with a distinct hollow thump, but still provides a firm foundation for both foot and thinner alpine backcountry ski. It provides support underneath but yields as if it were airs as one glides through it on skis.

Near the stream, I find river birches that show that spiders are still active despite the cold weather. A sunlit branch has three or four distinct spider threads along it, and since threads only last a day or so, they must have been laid after the recent snow storm. I search for some time, but I am unable to find the spider that laid them. I regain the paved road near mile 1.7.

Returning down canyon through Pleasant Valley, the south facing canyon slopes have lost their snow. Dried tan meadow grasses look like they have been combed by the hand of the wind.

After running the snow covered trails and through the cold shaded lower canyon, I am chilled but happy. Time for a hot shower at home, for a nap, and then for a relaxed and contented evening.

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