Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting important local journalism.
Centuries ago, Utah’s Jordan River passed unmolested among a network of islands and channels where it met the Great Salt Lake and supported a vast nesting area for countless migratory shorebirds on Farmington Bay.
But seismic shifts in the ground 2,600 years ago pushed the river to the east, leaving the delta dry, habitat more suitable for the livestock of later pioneers than the avocets, sandpipers, godwits, plovers and numerous shorebirds that depend on the Great Salt Lake for a place to breed and rest.
Since 2009, water again fills much of the ancient delta, but Ella Sorensen still can’t help wondering what it looked and sounded like thousands of years ago during nesting season.
“How glorious this place must have been when a river flowed through it and the abundance of wildlife using this area,” Sorensen said this week of the delta now preserved as the Edward L. and Charles L. Gillmor Audubon Sanctuary. Most of the preserve’s avian inhabitants have moved on for the winter, but the harriers, hawks, eagles and owls will stick around all year, patrolling the skies in search of hapless rodents on which to dine. Also, because some open water still remains unfrozen, a few ducks, geese and swans have yet to leave.
Since the refuge’s inception in the mid-1990s, Sorensen has managed the Audubon Society’s 3,600-acre Gillmor Sanctuary, named for the ranching family that still runs livestock in the area and provided some of the land.
Today this land supports a functioning delta again, thanks to a complicated water rights arrangement that allows millions of gallons from the Jordan River to be released into the Gillmor Sanctuary, flooding its channels. The water is delivered through the North Point Canal, which terminates on property that was recently donated to the sanctuary.
A gift of land
A recent 413-acre addition, worth at least $1 million, not only increases the wetland habitat the Audubon can restore here, but it also secures the land holding the vital waterworks — built at a cost of $350,000 — that makes the entire project possible.
“The water for the sanctuary is secure, but if someone bought the land and they [pursued] incompatible uses around our water-control structures, it would be a nightmare. So by donating the land, it allows us to control adjacent uses,” says Sorensen, a veteran conservationist who helped persuade philanthropists to buy the Great Salt Lake’s Fremont Island last fall and donate it to the state as a nature preserve.
The latest land gift, which was part of the vast Epperson tract owned for three generations by a California family, was made in honor of Christine Bothwell Pedroncelli, former president of Bothwell & Swaner Co., who died in September.
“She was the last of her generation to be actively involved in the management of the company,” says Pedroncelli’s daughter, Maureen Davison. “So it has been an ‘end of an era’ with her passing, and with this donation an end to the family’s involvement in Salt Lake City, where she was born. With our history with Ella [Sorensen], we wouldn’t donate it to anyone other than Audubon.”
The sanctuary is a network of 18 properties stitched together over the past 30 years. Sorensen had been working with the family since 1997 managing easements the Audubon holds across the Epperson tract.
“This gives us control of the property around our major water delivery system for the entire 3,600 acres,” she says. “It’s terribly significant.”
The Great Salt Lake and its surrounding wetland habitats are part of an important network of saline lake ecosystems that millions of birds depend on, according to Marcelle Shoop, director of Audubon’s Saline Lakes Program.
“Any of these areas where you have freshwater flows coming into these saline lakes are really important to provide transitional habitat for birds and invertebrates, bugs that birds eat,” Shoop says. “Maintaining those places where you can have that connection between the freshwater flows and these more saline habitats is really important to ensure that you’re going to have a very broad, healthy ecosystem.”
In Utah and neighboring states are numerous terminal lakes, such as California’s Owens Lake, Mono Lake and Salton Sea, Oregon’s Lake Abert, and Nevada’s Lahontan Valley, that sustain flocks of birds, including gulls and pelicans, on their seasonal journeys.
“Across the Intermountain West, these lakes are threatened by declining water levels, due to diversions and changing climate conditions,” Shoop says. That includes the Great Salt Lake, which is only about half its historic size.
The lake’s two other major deltas are protected as the federal Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and the state’s Ogden Bay Wildlife Management Area, where the Bear and Weber rivers, respectively, enter the lake.
The late University of Utah geographer Don Curry called the ancient mouth of the Jordan “a hemispheric treasure” because it has remained one of the few river deltas in the Americas that has remained intact over the course of human history.
“After the Jordan River moved,” Sorensen says, “it went dry and man didn’t mess it up with channels and moving dirt.”
All types of birds
The Gillmor Sanctuary holds 3.5 miles of shoreline just off Antelope Island’s southern tip. However, chronically low water levels have left Farmington Bay largely dry, effectively turning the Great Salt Lake’s largest island into a peninsula off the lake’s south shore.
To keep bison and other wildlife from escaping Antelope Island across the dry lake bed, the state has erected a long fence between the island and the sanctuary, where an errant bison Sorensen dubbed Ferdinand once took up residence.
Swans and 17 species of duck frequent Gillmor, which also provides nesting habitat for various shorebirds, such as the snowy plover, American avocet, Wilson’s phalarope, black-necked stilt, cinnamon teal and gadwall. Its mud flats provide essential resources for marbled godwits, sandpipers, long-billed dowitchers and Yellowlegs. The upland habitat provides nesting areas for loggerhead shrikes, brewer’s sparrows, sage thrashers and burrowing and short-eared owls.
“After nesting in northern United States and western Canada, the birds funnel to Great Salt Lake like grains in a great big hourglass. They come here and they feed,” Sorensen says. “They fatten. It fuels flight sometimes thousands of miles to winter all the way from southern Utah to the tip of South America.”
The ancient delta, located immediately north of the new state prison rising near the Salt Lake City International Airport and the proposed inland port, does not allow public access. But visitors are welcome at a 305-acre noncontiguous piece several miles to the west on Lee Creek.
While the sanctuary supports all types of birds, the key inhabitants are shorebirds, equipped with long legs for wading and long beaks for extracting prey from underwater. Managing water flows to support a large variety of species, the Audubon holds 750 shares in the North Point Canal, which yields about 3,000 acre-feet of water — some 978 million gallons — a year.
“You’ve got this topography that allows you to flood for varying depths for different birds. You have the islands where a lot of species like to nest,” Sorensen says. “Each one has a particular niche. Avocets will nest on islands and shoreline. They just scrape out a little nest and put down their eggs. Stilts like a bit more vegetation, snowy plovers like almost no vegetation.”
At least half the recently donated 413 acres can be converted to wetlands.
“We will be able to back flood this,” says Sorensen, looking over the canal toward the Epperson land. “It’s incredible habitat. We do adaptive management. There is not a cookbook that tells us how to do habitat for shorebirds. It’s deciding on a strategy, putting the water in and then watching how the vegetation reacts, how the birds react and making decisions based on the plan of what we want. We are macroinvertebrate farmers.”
She points out a half-mile dike built across an ancient channel to keep water from leaving the preserve onto the Epperson property. Sorensen will now be able to release water through that dike and allow water to surround a dry feature called Bessie’s Flat, named for the Gillmor matriarch.
“We can put in water control structures and restore the natural hydrology of the area. There are other dikes that we will be able to open and increase the natural flow to a portion of the delta,” she explains. “In Utah, you want to build bird habitat and here it is already created for you. We just have to put water in. If we were to create a wetland from scratch, there is no way we could afford to do all this.”