Projects set to improve Jordan River water quality and hopefully bring out the paddleboarders

About half of Utah’s population lives within 15 minutes of the river, and summer projects aim to bring more Utahns out to the waterway.

People who enjoy the Jordan River frequently can tell you their stories of seeing a beaver swim across the water, or witnessing a Blue Heron catch a fish for its dinner.

They can also tell you about the sunken shopping carts and bags of trash they have to kayak or paddleboard around on the river’s meandering course from Utah Lake to the Great Salt Lake — but several new projects from the Jordan River Commission are trying to change that vision of the river by cleaning up the waterway.

The Jordan River runs through several cities; in fact nearly half the state’s population lives within 15 minutes of the waterway. Like most urban rivers in the country, historically that’s made the river pretty filthy.

Aimee Horman paddles the river at least three times a week. She’s also the education outreach manager for the Jordan River Commission, which is a group dedicated to protecting and responsibly developing the river corridor. According to Horman, the recreation opportunities on the river have been growing.

“The river is great, and it’s year-round, and its activities are so accessible right in the heart of the valley.” Horman said. “Every time I’m on the river, there are other… people that are out there. And so even when we’re out doing canoe cleanup, other paddlers will paddle by and get excited that kind of stewardship is happening.

Not that it doesn’t have its problems. Like any other body of water, harmful algal blooms can occur during the summer when the water heats up — usually on parts of the Jordan River closer to Utah Lake. But overall, Horman said the river’s water quality puts it in a safe range for most activities.

What’s really holding the historic waterway back as a spot for recreation — and maybe even fishing — is its reputation for being dirty. In 2020, the Jordan River Commission conducted a survey that showed 42 percent of those surveyed said the water quality of the river was something that dissuaded them from visiting the area more frequently.

Building a better urban river

The Three Creeks Confluence — which include Emigration, Parleys, and Red Butte Creeks — is one project that will improve an area of the river. Scheduled to open on July 9, the area will restore the area where the creeks meet the Jordan River to a more natural state, creating a recreational venue where the confluence was once paved over and neglected.

“That culvert also happens to be the storm drain for the entire central city part of Salt Lake,” Søren Simonsen, executive director of the Jordan River Commission said. “It will give an opportunity for people to say ‘We need to start thinking differently about our water systems, and how we’re caring for them.’”

The Cornell Lift Station, which is across the river from Day-Riverside Library, is a project that’s constructing a stormwater treatment facility to create “usable, functional greenspace for the community.” The finished project, which is expected by the end of summer, will also serve as an educational opportunity to show residents how the water in their neighborhoods connects to the Jordan River Watershed.

“[The lift station] will do all kinds of things — from capturing stormwater in a different way off of the curb and gutter, to taking stormwater that’s collected in a massive underground system, that in the past [was] just dumped directly into the river, and now channelizes that through some wetland ponds through some aeration facilities and other natural treatments that will naturally clean the water before it gets to the Jordan River,” Simonsen said.

The Division of Water Quality recently received a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct a water quality study on the lower Jordan River, downstream of 2100 South — specifically investigating oxygen levels and how the quantity of water is tied to the quality of water. The drought has cut the amount of water in the river, concentrating pollutants.

The worst pollution is a thing of the past

Simonsen said over the last 50-60 years, most of the “point-source” pollutants — which are pollutants that come from an identifiable location — have been cleaned up. Many wastewater treatment facilities have undergone major upgrades to help address nutrients in the river.

“What we’re seeing now in terms of water quality [impacts] is mostly coming from stormwater,” Simonsen said. “What a lot of people don’t know is when you see a storm drain in a parking lot, or coming off the roof of a building or even the curb and gutter … People don’t really think about where that water goes, but it just gets flushed down typically into a nearby creek or stream or underwater culvert. And it all, at least across the Wasatch Front, it all ends up in the Jordan River watershed, one of the tributaries, Utah Lake, or the river directly, or in the Great Salt Lake.”

As the area continues to grow and urbanize, the amount of impervious surfaces like streets and parking lots increases, Simonsen said. Pavement can’t absorb precipitation and things like leaves and organic trash flow straight into the river. Aquatic wildlife suffers when the water is “super-loaded” with organic material flowing into the waterways. Microorganisms decompose the organic material, which depletes the oxygen in the river.

“You think leaves and grass clippings and things like that they’re natural, they biodegrade, aren’t those OK?” Simonsen said. “And the reality is … when you have impervious surfaces... all of that organic matter gets collected, and then flush[es] down the system when it rains or snows.”

Another threat is chemicals from vehicles, along with litter and other pollutants like fertilizer, which also flow into the Jordan River.

“That’s really becoming a real risk and a real threat to water quality, and to wildlife,” Simonsen said.

Simonsen is hoping all the improvements to the river will leave the public with an appreciation for the waterway, and maybe even the urge to visit it.

The wildlife is one of Horman’s favorite parts about the Jordan River, like the beaver who occasionally swim next to her on one of her weekly paddleboard trips. She also enjoys showing others the opportunities the river offers.

“You’re right in the heart of the valley and you wouldn’t believe the diversity of wildlife that you come across,” Horman said. “Some of those really majestic animals are just so exciting to see, and you don’t realize that they’re like, right in Murray, or right in Saratoga Springs.”