Three old streams bring one sparkling new attraction to Salt Lake City’s west side

Three Creeks Confluence Park showcases Red Butte, Emigration and Parleys waterways near the Jordan River Parkway Trail.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Seven Canyons Trust nears completion of its project to open Three Creeks Confluence Park in Salt Lake City, where Emigration, Red Butte and Parleys creeks meet the Jordan River near 1300 South and 900 West.

Snaking through Salt Lake City are several creeks, funneling alpine snowmelt from the Wasatch Mountains to the Jordan River. But they are creeks mostly in name only, confined to buried culverts for much of their courses through Utah’s most densely built urban environments.

Now a combined portion of Red Butte, Emigration and Parleys creeks are exposed to daylight where a future park along the Jordan is taking final shape in the Glendale neighborhood. Called Three Creeks Confluence, the future park is to be integrated into the Jordan River Parkway Trail near 900 West just north of 1300 South.

Until six months ago the site was a parking lot and burned residence, but soon it will be a community focal point where residents can enjoy the river flowing through the city, according to Brian Tonetti, executive director of the Seven Canyons Trust.

Tonetti founded the nonprofit a few years ago to develop a vision for restoring the seven Jordan River tributaries running through the Salt Lake Valley. Planned in partnership with Salt Lake City’s parks and public lands division, the new $3 million city-funded project is the trust’s first major effort to “daylight” a stream.

“There’s so much that you can do with a daylighting project,” Tonetti said during a recent visit to Three Creeks construction site, “from improving water quality, providing recreational opportunities, like fishing, boating, especially along the Jordan River and the connection there, [to] increased economic development around these projects, creating more livable cities.”

Where there was once a lot filled with dead automobiles, a fishing pier built from discarded pallets, mounds of refuse, a charred home and a big pipe that unceremoniously deposited the flow of three streams into the Jordan, there is now 200 feet of creek. The newly opened stream is framed by park space on the Jordan’s east bank and connected with the busy 900 West corridor.

A few miles upstream, Red Butte and Emigration creeks meet at Liberty Park, where they are encased in a culvert running west under 1300 South. Parleys Creek comes in at State Street and the combined flows continue west to the new park at the confluence with the Jordan.

How creek ‘daylighting’ began

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brian Tonetti, executive director of the Seven Canyons Trust, talks about the project to open Three Creeks Confluence Park in Salt Lake City, where Emigration, Red Butte and Parleys creeks meet the Jordan River near 1300 South and 900 West.

Back when cities were rising in the Salt Lake Valley, pioneers channeled the creeks to keep their unruly flows out of their fields and homes.

By doing so, the banks “deepened and eroded and created these nearly vertical banks, which we can still see today. That created a safety issue,” Tonetti said. “Because of the geography of the valley, they functioned as our sewer system. They flow east to west, out of our city, to the Jordan River and onto the Great Salt Lake. By getting rid of things within those creeks, whether that was sewage or chemicals, it was a way to kind of get them out of sight, out of mind.”

Now a movement is underway across the nation to bring these buried waterways back to life.

Creek daylighting got its first big push in the 1980s in Berkeley, Calif., where portions of at least three long-buried creeks have been opened through the city on the San Francisco Bay. Strawberry, Codornices and Blackberry creeks flow from coastal foothills, mostly through culverts to tidal estuaries on the bay’s east shore. Today, portions flow aboveground through green space.

The Strawberry Creek project, completed in 1984, is considered the archetype of modern creek daylighting, and the example it set has spread across the United States and Europe, according to a report by the Rocky Mountain Institute. Berkeley parks officials opened 200 feet of the creek and built a neighborhood park along its banks that helped revitalize a once-blighted part of the city.

“Strawberry Creek Park draws dozens to hundreds of people a day, many for the opportunity the creek presents urban dwellers, children, and adults alike to see, hear, smell, and feel flowing water and to enjoy the birds and aquatic creatures,” the report states. “Once a high-crime area and drug-dealing hot spot, the area now has a family-oriented feel.”

This is the kind of revitalization Tonetti and his allies are trying to bring to the entire Salt Lake Valley through the Seven Greenways Vision Plan.

“It’s creating greenway corridors,” he said, “along all seven of our creeks that are not only corridors for water, but actually corridors for the movement of wildlife, corridors for the movement of people and biking, walking, et cetera.”

A boost for the west side

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brian Tonetti, executive director of the Seven Canyons Trust, overlooks the final phase of the project to open Three Creeks Confluence Park in Salt Lake City, where Emigration, Red Butte and Parleys creeks meet the Jordan River near 1300 South and 900 West.

A New Yorker, Tonetti moved to Salt Lake City for college and skiing, or skiing and college. The order depends on who’s asking, he joked. A 2014 graduate of the University of Utah’s urban planning program, his first job out of college was program manager for the Jordan River Commission, which he left to start the Seven Canyons Trust with other U. alumni.

This organization grew out of urban ecology courses these former students took with Stephen Goldsmith, Salt Lake City’s former planning director and a leading voice in the movement to create walkable cities.

“My compliments to Brian and several other students who took the idea up and out of the classroom, built a nonprofit with their bare hands, including all of the stuff they had to do to go through the 501(c)(3) application process and getting the name through the state of Utah,” said Goldsmith, who now lives in Portland, Ore., where he serves as senior adviser to the Center for the Living City, a nonprofit he led until last year. “The name ‘trust’ has all these triggers that make it so you couldn’t do it. But the students just persisted and persisted.”

Goldsmith was one of the masterminds behind Salt Lake City’s first daylighting project back in the 1990s, when City Creek was opened from Memory Grove to the downtown intersection of State Street and North Temple.

He lauded the Three Creeks project for bringing greater equity to Salt Lake City’s west-siders, who have historically not gotten a fair share of public investments in open space.

“The healing and repairing of those three creeks — you’ve seen the before pictures, it was just a dumping ground — and the fact that they’ve restored not only the waterways, but the dignity of the place,” Goldsmith said, “this is not only an environmental remediation. This is a social and environmental justice project. The discrepancy between green space on the east side and the west side of Salt Lake City, access to parks, et cetera, is pretty glaring.”

Another west-side trail

(Rick Egan | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) The Albert Fisher Mansion and Carriage House were damaged in the 2020 earthquake. The mansion is envisioned as a feature along a new trail in west Salt Lake City.

Also unfolding on the city’s west side this year is a 1.2-trail along the old Folsom rail grade, which follows a culverted stretch of City Creek from 400 West to the Jordan River. The Folsom Trail will terminate just north of the historic city-owned Fisher Mansion, which sits on the river’s east bank and is to be integrated into the Jordan River Parkway as a recreation facility.

The Folsom Trail is being developed in tandem with a proposal to open this part of City Creek, but daylighting this end of the creek faces challenges because of the flat topography, said Tom Millar, a planner with the city’s transportation’s division.

City Creek currently is routed through a culvert under North Temple from State Street all the way to the river. At 400 West, the Folsom drain breaks off and carries some of the flow through parallel culvert a few blocks to the south. It’s the southern leg, along the route of the future trail, that would be opened, but the result won’t be a pleasant, babbling brook that many people would expect from a creek.

“When you get past Fourth West, the historical data show City Creek fanned out in this delta that was probably a couple of miles wide,” Millar said. “Because it flattened out so much, there wasn’t this clear channel for it to follow. There is no historical route of City Creek, so we would be trying to reengineer something that didn’t exist before.”

The water would be just 6 to 8 inches deep and would not appear to be moving, according a feasibility conducted a few years ago. Given these realities, the city has yet to decide on a course to take with regards to daylighting City Creek.

“As we seek support for this project,” Millar said, “we need to be pretty clear about what it’s going to do, what it’s going to look like, so we don’t set up expectations that are not feasible.”

Either way, Folsom Trail construction is to start in May and should be completed this year, providing yet another pedestrian connection from the city to the Jordan River and its 40-mile trail system.

Two miles to the south, however, Three Creeks Confluence is almost done, promising to tie a distressed part of the city to the valley’s longest-running recreational corridor stretching from North Salt Lake to Lehi, where the Jordan River exits Utah Lake.

Salt Lake City is looking to buy the home to the north of the new park for use as a nature center. Nearby are several schools, the Glendale library, the Sorenson Unity Center and a major Head Start center.

Two new bridges have already been installed, along with artworks laser-cut into their steel panels. One spans the river, connecting the new park to the trail on the opposite bank, while the other spans the combined three creeks.

“The intention,” Tonetti said, “is to function as a trailhead for the surrounding community.”