City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

March 12, 2017

March 12th

Filed under: Butterfly, Cottonwood tree, Dogwood, Gambel's Oak, gnats, grass, Horsetail, spiders — canopus56 @ 8:25 pm

Flooding of City Creek’s Delta – Part III

5:00 p.m. It is a Sunday; in the high fifties; and bright because it is the first day of Daylight Savings Time. Clocks were moved forward one hour, so this 4:30 p.m. was 4:00 p.m. yesterday. The stream is twice its usual volume; early spring run-off has begun. Until I am away from the stream on the Pipeline Trail, I do not appreciate just how loud it has become. The canyon is overflowing with people, and in addition to the strolling couples, now families with young children frequent the road. They are a sign of the coming spring. There are other signs this evening. I count six spiders of the same unidentified species on the road. A brown and orange butterfly goes by; the first of this new year. Below mile 0.4, some red-osier dogwoods are covered with new spider webs. In this lower part of the canyon, the buds of three types of plants begin to respond to lengthening daylight. The buds of some dogwoods have engorged and through their outer winter cases, the green of chlorophyll production can be seen. Horsetails through most of the canyon still lay flat, having been pushed down by the weight of prior snow. But below mile 0.4, the horsetails are standing erect, and this also indicates that chlorophyll production has begun. The buds of an unknown cultivar, out of place in this climate, ooze a reddish pink fluid and the stems leading the buds are turning green. But above mile 0.4, these signs end. Higher up canyon at Pleasant Valley, grasses respond. Where grasses were low last year, the ground is covered in green velvet, but for fields of taller grass with browned stems, the green is muted under that last year’s canopy. But in the entire canyon, the buds of native Gambel’s oak and cottonwoods wisely remain dormant. They are conditioned to a much colder February and March with more snow. Doing my distribution analysis of snow and precipitation for February, last month through February 21st, was a three percentile year for snow and a ninety-eight percentile year for temperature. In the last six days of the month, heavy storms and cold pulled February back to a 40th percentile year for snow and an 83 percentile year for temperature. This is a persistent drought pattern, and I expect March to also be unusually warm and dry. I am perplexed as to why early spiders would arrive and set up their nets. Above milepost 1.5, I look down canyon at the back lit road. The answer is the over 100 gnats suspended above the road. A coyote barks from the thickets of the southern canyon wall; it is waiting for the mule deer to start giving birth in April.

Most city residents take the 1983 flooding of Salt Lake City’s downtown as the benchmark of how rare city flooding is, but this impression based on a single lifetime is misleading. City Creek’s delta, and its business district, have flooded on numerous occasions prior to 1983, and if Bekker et al historical reconstructions are correct, the City Creek delta will be subjected to flooding in the future. Downtown flooding occurred in 1852, 1854, 1864 (flooding North Temple), 1866, 1869, 1870, 1873, 1874 (flooding Main Street and South Temple), 1876, 1882 (possibly flooding downtown), 1884 (flooding North Temple), 1885 (flooding streets), and 1889 (flooding streets) (Woolley at 96-120, Honker 1999). On June 19th, 1903 in a lengthy statement, City Engineer L.C. Kelsey described the risk to the City of flooding from an extreme weather cloudburst after hundreds died in a cloudburst flood in Heppner, Oregon (Salt Lake Telegram):

“A part of the city is located at the mouth of City Creek canyon in such a position that a heavy cloudburst in the canyon would send a wall of water into the city that would cause a heavy loss of probably both life and property.”

“I understand that cloudbursts in former years have done considerable damage, but nothing of that kind has ever happened while I have been here.”

“A cloudburst of any considerable magnitude would do almost incalculable damage, and I cannot see how it could be avoided.”

“There is no possible way to divert such a stream without an enormous expenditure of money. If unlimited means were at hand the question would have to be most carefully considered. I would not suggest any means of reaching this end without studying the situation. Means, however, could certainly be devised.”

“A war of water coming down the canyon, similar to that at Heppner, would sweep everything before It. Residences in the canyon’s mouth would fall like card houses and the wave would then sweep down North Temple and State streets. The greater volume would go down the former and the wall surrounding Temple square would melt before it.”

“The Temple itself, the basement at least would be inundated and havoc would be played there. The water going westward would soon spread, but incalculable damage and perhaps heavy loss of life would mark its path.”

“The lesser volume would go down State street, spreading ruin in its course, until It, too, had dissipated.”

“While such a thing Is not probable, it Is altogether possible, as the city in a climatic belt where cloudbursts could be well expected. Such things cannot, however, be foreseen” (Salt Lake Telegram, June 9, 1903).

After Kelsey’s caution, flooding also occurred in 1907 (flooding North Temple), 1908 (flooding North Temple) and 1909 (flooding North Temple and requiring construction of five foot embankments) (Woolley at 96-120, Honker 1999). Although the Intermountain Republican played down the extent of the damage and suggested that only minor improvements were needed, photographs of the 1909 flood at the J. Willard Marriott Digital Archives (Honker) and the newspaper’s own contemporaneous account suggest that North Temple to Second South were inundated with almost a foot of water:

The damage by the flood is not so great as would be suggested to a casual observer. . . . It will several weeks until the creek has receded to it proper channel before North Temple street can be cleaned up. Hundreds of tons of dirt and gravel, brought down by the water, will have to be cleaned up and hauled away; the temporary banks will have to be removed, bridges will need repairing, and in some instances totally reconstructed. The (City Creek) conduit must be cleaned and the channel banked up. All this will take weeks of strenuous work on the part of the street department. (Intermountain Republican, June 9th, 1909).

City Engineer Kelsey recommended a more robust response: encase City Creek in a concrete pipe under State Street that would bypass the central business district. On March 10th, 1910, P. J. Moran Construction Company reported that it will complete the underground aqueduct to carry City Creek waters past the downtown district and opined that the aqueduct will “render it impossible in the future for floods to go tearing down Canyon Road and the State Street . . .” (Salt Lake Herald). After the City implemented this permanent solution, downtown flooding again occurred in 1912 (flooding South Temple with tons of sand) and 1918 (silting 200 South with 1 foot of mud) (Woolley at 96-120, Honker 1999). On August 13, 1923, Kelsey’s 1903 prediction came true. An extreme cloudburst event along the Wasatch Front sent torrents down Farmington Canyon, destroyed Farmington City, and killed seven (Honker, 35-36). Salt Lake’s downtown also flooded (Woolley at 96-120, Honker 1999).

Despite moving City Creek to an underground conduit, Salt Lake’s downtown also flooded in 1925 (flooding basements), 1931 (12 inches of water in streets), and 1945. In the flood of August 19th, 1945, after a summer of fires that denuded the hills above the Avenues, a flash flood ripped down Perry’s Hollow, through the cemetery, and deposited headstones on N Street. Reminiscent of Kelsey’s 1903 caution, in the central business district,

“Two hours later [after the cloudburst] State St. was still blocked by the overflow from flooding City Creek. Boulders weighing 300 and 500 pounds were left along the way. Parked automobiles were carried for blocks. Tree branches and trash cans were left in four and five foot drifts.” (Salt Lake Telegram, July 16th, 1946).

The City reported $500,000 USD of damages in 1946 currency. In the 1990s, a roadway retention dam was built across upper Perry’s Hollow to prevent a recurrence of Avenues flooding.

The flood of 1983 required building of embankments on State Street, out North Temple to 1000 west, and along 1300 South (Woolley at 96-120, Honker 1999). Sandbagging along State Street prevented the then only underground garage at ZCMI from flooding (Salt Lake Tribune, June 1983). Historical photographs of the floods of 1907 through 1909, reproduced in Honker 1999, are reminiscent of the sandbagging of State Street in 1983. But by 1983, the earlier flood era had been forgotten, and city residents of 1983 viewed their flood as a new, rare occurrence (Personal recollection).

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on March 12th, 1853, he sees the first lark of the season, and he strips back the bark of a dead pine tree and finds gnat grubs. On March 12, 1854, he sees a flock of blackbirds, the first robin of the season, a jay, a chickadee, and crows. He records bare earth with no snow. On March 12th, 1856, he records heavy snow drifts. On March 12th, 1857, he sees a red squirrel feeding on frozen apples. On March 12th, 1859, he admires a rain-soaked bank that is colored by lichens, brown grasses and weeds, and sand.

On March 12th, 1916, the new scenic boulevard from 11th Ave, up City Creek, and then around to the State Capitol opened. The boulevard was then called “Wasatch Boulevard” (Salt Lake Telegram). On March 12th, 1906, Land and Water Commissioner Frank Mathews impounded fourteen cows that he found illegally grazing in City Creek (Salt Lake Telegram). On March 12th, 1905, City Engineer Kesley has begun survey work for the new 5,000,000 gallon reservoir in City Creek Canyon (Deseret Evening News).

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).

January 10, 2017

January 10th

Wooden Noises

3:00 p.m. Last night media was concerned that flooding may occur because of the heavy rain and continuing high temperatures. Most of the snow is gone from south facing slopes and the snow left along the road is saturated with water. It has remained warm, so no crust has formed on the snow’s surface, but everywhere the snow is covered with bits of bark, leaves and dirt from a high wind. There is no sign of the potential flood; the stream has not risen; but, for the remainder of the season the risk of avalanche in the high Wasatch Front Mountains will be high. At higher elevations, this water soaked layer will form a base on which further snow layers will accumulate, and this can form a fracture zone in which back country skiers can be swept to burial. At Guardhouse Gate, a chickadee is sings a bright note. The sky is overcast and gives off a uniform diffuse light. For some stretches of the stream, I see hints of the silver ribbon (Dec. 26th).

Where the snow bank is partially eaten away, the bunch grass is exposed, and the dried tan grass is mixed in with still growing green shoots. Although recently soaked in water, this time the tips of the oaks and maples do not turn red-tinged (Dec. 11th), and the trees make no start at growth in response to the water. Although I had thought that mosses had stopped growing, at the down-canyon end of picnic site 4, I find two trees where on the west side, they are covered in bright orange lichen and on the east side, they are covered in a thick mat of dark-green moss.

From this weather, at picnic site 9, the Bald-Faced hornet nest is reduced to the size of a large grapefruit. At picnic site 1, the hummingbird nest is dissipating. I can partially see through its weaving.

Another storm front is approaching, and at mile 1.3, the wind gusts at 30 miles per hour while six anterless elk graze on a west hillside about three hundred feet away. The Gambel’s oaks creak and groan. Leaves rustle, and a single leaf loudly tumbles across the surface of the snow. There is a fourth sound. Where the wind causes two small branches to collide, they make a subtle dull and hollow thud sound, similar to tone of musical wooden xylophone. In their resting state, it sound as if the branches of trees are empty of water.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on January 10th, 1957, he records a -8 degree F. temperature with heavy snows that have trapped him at home. He recalls summer. On January 10th, 1858, Thoreau prescribes the snow-covered beauty of catkins as a remedy for winter seasonal affect disorder. He notes that any sight of “catkins, birds’ nests, insect life” is welcomed in winter. He observes a sunset in which pink light is reflected off of snow.

November 30, 2016

November 29th

Scrub Oak Forest With Snow

4:30 p.m. The day after a major storm, the road is clear and dry or damp, and the canyon is covered in six inches of new snow. In the high mountains, three feet has fallen. Although the Sun comes out in the afternoon, the temperatures in the canyon remain in the upper twenties and low thirties, and as a result, branches in the scrub oak forest is covered in three to five inches of snow. But because of the low temperature, the snow will not melt. At mile 1.0 on the high north-west ridge, are four female deer and at mile 1.3, six mule deer are digging through the snow for grass hidden underneath. In the distance, the pine and fir trees on Black Mountain and the unnamed peak at 8283 feet have been blasted and are frosted with a layer of fresh snow.

Since the Pipeline Trail is covered with fresh dry snow, I decide to return by jogging down the trail before rising temperatures turn it into watery mud. Three or four other runners have already broken trail, but there is enough fresh snow that I get to enjoy the soft sound of a few inches of powder under my feet. It is slow going, but is still an enjoyable jog. The Gambel’s oaks arch from the left and the right over the trail, meeting at the top, and thus, they form a natural snow covered arch in the dimming twilight. By taking the trail, I am rewarded with the evening calls of a group of chukars (Alectoris chukar) high on the north-west canyon wall.

A third of a mile before the gate, I am greeted by clear skies and a brilliant Venus hanging as a guide star above the trail and twenty degrees above the horizon against a deep blue twilight sky. It will continue rising in the evening sky until its maximum elongation from the Sun and a peak brightness of magnitude -5.1 on January 12, 2017. This is midway in brightness between the brightest star, Vega (magnitude 0.0), and the full Moon (magnitude -10). I am reminded that although my feet are comfortably chilled by jogging through snow powder, on Venus the high level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has raised temperatures to where lead flows like water.

November 28, 2016

November 28th

Insect Death; Winter Storm

3:30 p.m. It has rained most of the night; in the afternoon, a major winter storm comes through the valley; and there is six inches of snow in the canyon, as I begin my jog into moderate falling snow blown by a strong wind. The stream is swollen and watercress formerly along the stream bank are now all waving from under water. A squall line is crossing the canyon, and even though the road is newly plowed, a fresh layer of snow covers it. My footsteps are soft and muffled. But the jog is not a cold one. Clouds, which allow only a third of a mile in visibility, make a roof over the canyon, and this keeps the what heat there is in.

Even in this near white-out, there is color, and the white snow emphasizes color where ever it can be found. At two water seeps on the west side of the canyon, the green of the watercress more vibrant. The light brown of the catkins hanging from Box elder trees are radiant. By the time I reach the Pleasant Valley meadow, snow is falling vertically. All is quiet with solitude. The tan of parched summer grasses contrasts with the newly fallen snow. One or two chickadees are heard in the distant trees.

I am not alone. A regular runner is exiting the canyon as I arrive. A lone man strolls using an umbrella to keep the snow at bay. Although I am alone for almost a mile, as I go down canyon, a young confident runner speedily goes by and disappears into the falling snow.

It is the third day of low temperatures with some snow on the ground. Today is or yesterday was the next marker of the change of seasons of Summer to Fall: the insects are gone. Other markers were the peak of leaf turning (September 13th), the first light snow (September 22nd), the Yellow Tube of leaves (October 11th), the Brown Tube of leaves (October 21st), the day of last leaf fall (November 10th), the first major snowfall and the White Tube (November 24th). This second major storm is a killing storm. There is no freeze, but insects will not survive. The nest of the Bald-faced Hornets at picnic site 9 is in tatters. It has lost one-half its volume as the rain and snow have progressively removed its outer layers.

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