Utahns asked to weigh in on the future of the Jordan River

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People recreate near the International Peace Gardens along the Jordan River Parkway on Wednesday, August 5, 2020, as new grant money becomes available to refresh the comprehensive master plan for the 51-mile parkway stretching from Utah Lake in Utah County to the wetlands of the Great Salt Lake.

This may be a time like no other for the Jordan River.

Wasatch Front residents by the thousands are seeking out green spaces and recreation along Utah’s main urban waterway for relief from the COVID-19 crisis.

Its necklace of parks and natural areas offers a way to enjoy mature trees and a diverse range of wildlife, hike or bike an extensive network of trails, or float segments of the 51-mile flow connecting Utah Lake with the Great Salt Lake’s southern wetlands.

“More people are discovering the Jordan River Parkway,” said Søren Simonsen, executive director of the Jordan River Commission. “We’ve seen just an explosion during the pandemic.”

And even before COVID-19, generations-old dreams of preserving and improving the river and its ancient watershed have been slowly coming true. New spots for connecting Utahns with its native beauty seem to sprout like bulrushes along the path through 16 cities and three counties.

An important and in-depth planning effort is now underway for how the beautiful yet often neglected river could evolve in the coming decades.

But the health crisis has hampered efforts to create a new blueprint for the Jordan River Parkway. Supporters of the process recently extended their deadline for the public to weigh in.

Residents can add their visions for the river — at least until Thursday — through an online survey at blueprintjordanriver.org.

“The survey is playing a much bigger role than it would have initially,” Simonsen said, “because it’s really the only way we can interact with the public without having large gatherings.”

Financed by a grant and other funds totaling about $200,000, the plan is meant to capture Utah’s best concepts for saving open spaces and wildlife habitats along the Jordan River, reducing trash and water pollution, limiting encroachment from new housing and industrial development and making the river’s riches easier to reach.

And unlike a previous blueprint for the river developed in 2008, this one will spell out how to make those concepts a reality.

Some progress

That 2008 vision called for big changes, only some of which have come to pass — a major one being creation of the river commission itself, in 2010.

In 2017, officials held a ribbon-cutting on the last few trail connections that created a continuous 46-mile link along the river from Utah Lake to the Great Salt Lake — one of the prior blueprint’s main goals.

The past decade has also seen governments, nonprofits and other interests buy and preserve open spaces all along the corridor. Its path northward now links several major nature preserves and riverside parks, walkways, boating ramps, bird observation areas and networks of improved and extended east-west trails and cycling routes connecting into the parkway.

Efforts by the Seven Canyons Trust to restore paved sections of the urban creeks feeding into the Jordan River are also taking shape. Volunteers are close to completing a $3 million restoration of a site known as the Three Creeks Confluence, where Red Butte Creek, Emigration Creek and Parleys Creek reach the Jordan, at about 1300 South and 900 West.

Salt Lake City is improving the riverside Fisher Mansion, at 1206 W. 200 South.

Years since the public last weighed in have also seen progress with restoring riparian ways and in clearing noxious weeds, including puncture vine and vast stands of nonnative phragmites, an aggressive wetland grass that can grow so thick it blocks people from reaching the river’s shores.

Other goals for creating a 7,300-acre linear nature preserve around the Jordan River, substantially improving water quality and flows, and restoring wetlands and meandering contours are still in progress.

Also pending are ideas for larger mixed-used developments along the waterway — places with housing, with river-facing eateries, shops and offices — and for closely tying those projects with mass transit.

Tish Buroker, who currently heads the river commission, said that while the Jordan is deeply embedded in their histories, cities along the corridor have not always viewed the river as an asset. In some cases, the Riverton City Council member said, that’s meant allowing new subdivisions and other developments right up to its banks.

“One thing we’re trying to encourage as cities is wider setbacks along the river,” said Buroker, who tries to paddle its length at least once a year. “Those can be highly valued places to live.”

Added Simonsen: “Right now, the Jordan River is the back of everything.”

Problems with urban debris and tainted stormwater have persisted or even worsened in recent years as the population continues to grow.

Simonsen said the Jordan gets more polluted as it nears the Great Salt Lake and — like other urban rivers heavily used for irrigation — runs low on water, an effect made more pronounced by climate change.

“It’s a real social space,” he said, “but the river is very, very dirty and lots of signs of degradation at the bottom of the watershed.”

Access to nature

Though it runs just 50 miles through some of Utah’s most populated and developed areas, the Jordan River has nearly 40 federal, state and local governments and special districts with a say in shaping the policies around its future. Property owners along the river corridor also have a major stake.

In a wider sense, the entire populations of Utah, Davis and Salt Lake counties influence what happens within the Jordan’s three-county ecosystem, according to the head of Envision Utah, the Salt Lake City-based planning group hosting the survey.

“Anybody who lives within the watershed of the Jordan River affects the Jordan River,” said Ari Bruening. “Whatever I wash into my gutters ends up in the river, right?”

Land development planned in the inland port on the capital city’s west side and at the Point of the Mountain once the state prison moves north is likely to have a direct impact on the corridor’s long-term future.

The parkway’s management raises equity issues, too, as the river is a respite for Wasatch Front residents who might not have the time or money to venture into the Wasatch canyons for recreation, several supporters said.

“Access to the river is access to nature, access to the raw, wild places that remain in the Salt Lake Valley,” said Kyle LaMalfa. The former Salt Lake City Council member from the west side and husband to Mayor Erin Mendenhall is now involved in restoring several of the river’s tributaries.

“And if we want it to be a clean, natural space that remains available to people,” LaMalfa said, “that will come out in the survey.”

To at least one environmental advocate, the Jordan River needs systematic greenbelt protections that cut across governments, akin to those extended to other thriving urban waterways like the Boise River.

Saving the parkway’s green spaces and pristine character, according to Zach Frankel with Utah Rivers Council, “also requires turning some developers down when they want to develop all the way to the edge of the river.”

Yet no government agency has control over the entire corridor, although the river commission set up by the Utah Legislature 10 years ago aims to educate and harmonize all those voices behind a shared vision.

“We have no regulatory authority,” said Simonsen, also a former Salt Lake City Council member. “And it took almost a decade to get full participation of all the cities and counties involved.” Even now, he said, Utah County — home to some of the river’s more appealing natural stretches — is not an active commission member.

All that, in effect, underscores the importance of a robust new guide. Simonsen said the commission is consulting over 250 experts for this latest plan, for completion later in the year — pandemic permitting — but public input remains vital.

“The original blueprint has been an incredibly valuable resource,” he said. “It has guided us for a decade.”