Salt Lake City is dependent on water from our canyons. How long can it keep growing while using them for recreation?

With more people than ever visiting the central Wasatch Front, Salt Lake City is updating its watershed management plan to keep up with growth and conservation needs.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Extensive development goes up around Jordanelle State Park reservoir in September 2021.

Six canyons — Big Cottonwood, Little Cottonwood, Parleys, Little Dell, Lambs and City Creek canyons — make up as much as 60% of Salt Lake City’s water. With Utah’s population slated to add over 2 million people within the next 40 years, and recreation increasing, officials are changing how Salt Lake City uses its water to protect it for years to come.

Laura Briefer, director of Salt Lake City’s public utilities, told The Salt Lake Tribune her department is currently drafting an update to their watershed management plan, which they are required to do by law. Without detailed planning, the future of Salt Lake City’s water could be in jeopardy.

“By the year 2060, if we don’t conserve more water, it will be too close to the limits of the future water supplies, even if we developed additional sources,” Briefer said. “So that just makes the protection of the water that we do have out of these watersheds all the more critical, because we know we can’t risk having those watersheds somehow be impaired.”

With a growing population and an explosion in outdoor recreation, which began during the COVID-19 pandemic, Salt Lake City has also had to step up their public utilities staffing to keep up with the number of people in the watershed canyons.

Interactions between staff and the public aren’t always positive, Briefer said, with confrontations popping up while public utility workers are trying to do their jobs cleaning up watersheds and maintaining canyons.

Does Salt Lake City have enough water?

For southern Utah, water issues are becoming a constant issue. Developers in St. George, one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country, may soon have to get residential projects approved by the Washington County Water Conservancy District rather than from cities.

Like St. George, Salt Lake City is changing rapidly. The county is projected to add around 290,000 households, nearly 200,000 jobs and nearly half a million people by 2060.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall told The Tribune that making growth and development plans are the bread and butter of city work. She said one of the major focuses of the city’s watershed management plan is recognizing the impact of climate change while keeping watersheds strong amid development and expansion.

“It endeavors to secure the water needs of Salt Lakers and the other cities that we supply water for decades to come,” Mendenhall said.

Briefer also said the impact of climate change is an area of concern, especially when looking at yearly snowpack totals that act as a reservoir for the valley. Warmer winters means less snow in the mountains, dragging down the snowpack and resulting in less water in the summer months. Briefer is optimistic that the city will be able to accommodate the increasing population and demand for water, but there’s work to be done to ensure that happens.

“The thing that makes me the most nervous is that, in particular, climate change is presenting more uncertainty to all of our water resources, southern and northern Utah, in ways that we hadn’t experienced before,” Briefer said.

Protecting water, preserving the outdoors

The sheer number of visitors to the watershed canyons caused Salt Lake City’s public utilities to bring on additional staff while the Coronavirus was raging in Utah, Briefer told The Tribune.

“During the height of the pandemic, in 2020 and 2021, operationally we stepped up to help support the Forest Service on things like maintenance and cleaning of sanitary facilities, so trailhead restrooms and that type of thing,” Briefer said.

More activity in local watersheds means a greater possibility of contamination, whether it be through human or animal feces or other contaminants from construction sites, to name a few. Water could also be contaminated through things like stormwater runoff as well.

Since then, Briefer said anecdotally it seems to her that more people are not complying with canyon regulations, “particularly the dogs in the watershed.” Domestic animals, including dogs, are not allowed in Utah watersheds, as any feces could wind up in your drinking water. Feces often contains bacteria that can make people sick.

For the most part, Briefer said interactions with the public are positive, but there are exceptions.

“I think our watershed rangers who are out and about every day have, perhaps like many government workers, seen an uptick in less than civil interactions, as well,” Briefer said.

According to data published by the Central Wasatch Commission — an intergovernmental agency made up of city, county and state entities that vies for the mountain range’s sustainability — vehicle emissions in the central Wasatch canyons have gone up considerably since the pandemic, one sign illustrating the growth in visitors to the canyons.

Blake Perez, Central Wasatch Commission’s executive director of administration, said its environmental dashboard data is one of the most crucial tools to understanding the canyon’s current problems. The CWC regularly publishes data on mining activity, reservoir levels, Ozone levels and more.

Threading the needle

“These mountains cannot survive an infinite number of people, they just can’t,” said Alta Mayor Roger Bourke.

As a full-time resident of the ski town for over 20 years, he has watched Little Cottonwood Canyon evolve. While he thinks the town has a minimal amount of room left for any type of expansion and construction, the growing number of visitors is cause for concern.

He added that much of the construction around the town is limited to rehabilitating existing properties, as there is little space available for new developments.

Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons, said there are two paths for the future of the canyons. One path is keeping the status quo, which he believes would be the downfall of the watershed canyons.

“The other scenario is one where we actually do grapple with the reality of the situation, and try and find that sweet spot between stewarding and protecting our natural resources, and balancing it with growth and recreation,” Fisher told The Tribune.

Fisher believes the high number of people recreating in the canyons will likely stay high. He said more people are moving to the state to be closer to the outdoors, and Utah companies are using the outdoors as a recruiting tool.

“I think the numbers will continue to climb but I don’t think they’ll continue to climb as sharply as we saw during COVID,” Fisher said.

Balancing the projected growth while protecting watersheds is an act of threading the needle, Perez from the Central Wasatch Commission said. He pointed to the Forest Service proposing recreation fees as one way that department could keep up with the demand of the canyons.

“This isn’t a winter problem anymore,” Perez said. “People are going up into these mountains all year long.”

While the influx of more people visiting watersheds poses risks, Briefer is staying positive. More people in the canyons can also promote a greater sense of stewardship to protect the watersheds, she said.

“I think much of our community really understands that they are part of the collective approach to mitigating drought through conservation,” Briefer said. “Similarly, the folks that are visiting these canyons, all of our recreational visitors, can do the same in terms of stewardship.”

Correction, Sept. 22, 10:15 a.m. • The story has been updated with a corrected figure on how much Salt Lake City’s water comes from the watershed canyons.