The Red Butte study has its roots in a larger research effort known as iUTAH, a clever acronym for innovative Urban Transitions and Aridregion Hydro-sustainability, and bills itself as "science for Utah's water future."
The project is funded with a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Utah State University, Brigham Young University, Westminster College and Utah Valley University are also participating.
This summer, research teams will conduct a similar "synoptic" survey on the larger Logan River in Cache County. Researchers will use findings from Red Butte and Logan to structure an intensive look at the much larger Provo River, which connects Utah Lake with the faraway Uinta Mountains.
iUTAH pulls together scientists from geologist Samantha Weintraub to sociologist Melissa Haeffner. They were among the researchers gathered along the creek Monday where it dives beneath a parking lot at 1500 East.
At that spot, the creek is "losing" water to the ground. Other sampling locations mark places where the creek "gains" water.
Weintraub pulled soil samples and dropped them into quart-sized Ziploc bags.
In the lab, the dirt will be bathed in saline solution to draw out nitrogen so researchers can gauge the soil's nutrients. The hope is to determine the source of contaminants, such as microbial actions, air pollution or wastewater from sewer leaks.
"We want to know the connection between the soils and the stream," said Weintraub, a U. postdoctoral research fellow.
The scientists started at 1100 East on Monday and will work their way upstream this week, sampling along an 8-mile stretch to the creek's headwaters in the closed Red Butte Canyon Research Natural Area.
In all, they will sample 40 locations as the stream courses through Salt Lake City's East Bench, the U. campus, Fort Douglas and into the forested canyon above the university. Another 40 wells, seeps, springs and other moist spots around the Red Butte watershed will be sampled.
The canyon has been closed to public access for decades, offering researchers a slice of mountain terrain that is largely unmolested by human activity.
"If you want to predict the resilience of a watershed, it helps to start with a site that has the least amount of disturbance," Brooks said. "To collect a baseline level of data, Red Butte Creek is wonderful."
The creek study could provide insight for regional water management, he said. "Red Butte Creek typifies questions for water sustainability faced by the entire West."
Teams are also surveying vegetation in 50-meter swaths straddling the creek and assessing the stream's tiny creatures, including microbes and insects.
Human residents will also be surveyed with questionnaires to gather data on water use.