Experts say water distribution issues across Utah—the second-driest state in the country— can have negative impacts on wildlife populations, the environment and recreationalists.
Much of Utah’s water isn’t accessible to the large community of outdoor enthusiasts who are attracted to the state. Around 40 percent of Utah’s fishable water is currently on private land, according to Megan Crehan, a law student at the University of Utah and a former rafting guide.
“The public should have access to rivers and streams,” Crehan said. “People are attracted to Utah because of its recreation. Just because you are accessing public lands and water doesn’t mean you are causing harm.”
Poor water distribution has negative impacts — stemming from pollution — for Salt Lake City’s residents and recreationalists, according to Crehan and David Kimberly, an assistant professor of biology at Westminster College.
“A majority of our pollution is coming from industrial regulation,” Kimberly said. “Mining, smelting and exhaust from semi-trucks contribute to our pollution. Most of those things are getting to the water — things such as metals, mercuries and cadmiums. Some agricultural chemicals and nutrients can also get into the rivers.”
Those materials can end up in the Great Salt Lake, according to Kimberly. And when they absorb to sediment, they can become airborne during low lake levels.
“Nutrient pollution is a bigger issue in Utah Lake because it is fresh water,” Kimberly said. “They went through four or five bouts of algal blooms over this last season. This led to both fish die-offs as well as impacts on humans and companion animals. Dogs got really sick.”
Utah Lake will continue to see similar issues, Kimberly said. Algal blooms not only effect human and animal health but also have a negative impact on recreation.
“If there are really harmful algal blooms, there is no recreation,” Kimberly said. “And because of the algal blooms, there will be very little dollars that are coming in from that. No one wants to go to a harmful algal bloom to recreate.”
Water distribution and public access issues across the state are evident in and around Westminster College because many of Salt Lake City’s watersheds are connected. But to understand them, it’s easier to take a closer look at individual watersheds and the issues they face.
Emigration Creek’s headwaters lie in Emigration Canyon. The creek makes its way past the Hogle Zoo and a golf course before eventually heading straight through Westminster’s campus, where few students know where the water came from or where it’s going next.
“I know almost nothing about the creek,” said Chris Keim, a senior environmental studies major. “I think most students on campus are the same way.”
Kerry Case, the director of Westminster’s Environmental Center, said Emigration Creek is one of the most underutilized resources on campus.
“I will take students there on a tour and at least half of the class has never been there before,” she said.
Case said the creek ran through a pipe on Westminster’s campus 10 years ago but was then renovated, giving it a more natural look.
After the water flows through campus, it runs underground through Salt Lake City until it reaches the Jordan River, a tributary to the Great Salt Lake.
“The creek is a prime example of an urban waterway,” Case said. “By the time it gets to our campus, it has been so heavily altered, changed, manipulated and polluted. It is an interesting representation of human interaction with waterways in the West.”
Though it’s in the middle of a city, the creek is home to wildlife like trout, birds and insects.
It’s spring fed just upstream from the college, which prevents it from running dry on campus, Case said. But on low water years, the creek has run dry further upstream, leading the college to think about doing habitat work on campus.
When the creek runs dry, it impacts not only wildlife habitats but also has impacts downstream, as well.
If water doesn’t make it to the Jordan River, less water reaches the Great Salt Lake, which leads to lower water levels and issues like airborne pollutants.
The Great Salt Lake Tributaries
Once Emigration Creek runs through the city, it merges with the Jordan River, which is one of three tributaries to the Great Salt Lake.
Along with the Jordan River, the Bear River and the Weber River feed the Great Salt Lake. Water from these rivers is mostly used for utilities and recreation, limiting the amount of water flowing to the Great Salt Lake.
The islands at the Great Salt Lake are no longer islands because water isn’t flowing into the lake, according to Jaimi Butler, the coordinator of Westminster College’s Great Salt Lake Institute.
“This is not something that is going to go away any time soon,” Butler said. “A lot of that depends on how much water we allow to get to Great Salt Lake. A lot of reservoirs that we use for drinking water and holding water are filled up, too. And those reservoirs are low just like the Great Salt Lake is.”
The Jordan River is not healthy enough to support a population wildlife like trout, Kimberly said. The water is often too shallow, too warm and too exposed for a trout to survive and does not move fast enough.
“Generally, the populations that live around the Jordan River are ones that are of lower-income status and are populations that are underserved,” Kimberly said. “You think about who is able to access and have the time for something like trout fishing — it’s a very expensive activity. That means that populations that are of lower means are stuck with resources [like the Jordan River] that are more impacted because the other recourses are kept nicer for a certain population.”
Kimberly said the river would be healthier if the population surrounding the Jordan River had a stronger voice.
However, it’s not only those who live directly on the Jordan River who are affected. If water isn’t distributed to the Great Salt Lake, there can also be direct impacts to the Salt Lake City population.
If there is no water to cover up the lakebed, then wind can pick up the dirt and blow it into the city, according to Jules Jimreivat, a senior biology major at Westminster.
The reservoirs also provide communities surrounding the Wasatch with drinking water and recreation—leaving the few rivers in high demand.
“Recently, a 4th District judge temporarily opened public access to streams that were blocked by a bill in 2010,” Crehan said. “This includes rivers such as the Weber and the Provo. A lot of rivers that are right in our neck of the woods have been opened up again.”
This issue of public access to Utah waterways is still a major issue. The Utah Stream Access Coalition is currently in an ongoing court battle against a luxury real estate and golf community along the Provo River regarding public access to waterways. The Utah Stream Access Coalition is suing Victory Ranch for public access in the case, which is now at the Utah Supreme Court.
The Provo River
The Provo River starts in the Uinta mountain range and flows through a mix of private and public land before it reaches Utah Lake.
The Provo River is the most popular trout fishery in the greater Wasatch area, according to Todd Kramer, the head guide at Fishheads Fly Shop.. The fishing industry has felt impacts from pollution, which has also created issues for the watershed.
In 1999, the Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission started the Provo River Restoration Project, which was intended to restore the river to historic flow paths through the Heber Valley. The restoration project ended up being detrimental to the fishery, according to Kramer.
“I never got a chance to fish the Provo before the restoration,” Kramer said”I have heard stories of the giant fish that used to live in the river. It was a daily occurrence to have a chance at catching one of those fish. Now, the average fish is 8 to 13 inches.”
Before restoration, the Provo River had a far healthier population of aquatic life, Kramer said.
This aquatic life was primarily insects, including several stonefly species, midges and multiple mayfly species.
“Since the restoration, the amount of stoneflies has diminished greatly,” Kramer said. “The biomass has drastically changed. The main bug species in the river now is a sow bug.”
The trend of increasing pollution and decreasing bio-diversity is becoming more common, Kimberly said — and the issue is further compounded by a lack of regulation on the river.
“Anyone can guide [the Provo River] without a license or any experience,” Kimberly said. “This leads to overcrowding on the river system. With the overcrowding, if every person dropped one gum wrapper, over time those gum wrappers are going to add up.”
Overcrowding is not always the issue for the watershed, Kramer said. Often it’s the number of people who do not treat the river or the fish with respect and care.
“Too many times the uneducated or unlicensed guide is having their client hold these fish in ways that are strenuous to the trout,” Kramer said. “Sometimes they are holding the trout out of the water for minutes at a time so their client can get a precious photo.”
One resolution to this issue is education and knowledge of local watersheds, according to Kramer and Kimberly.
“There are a number of studies that show that when you are more engaged with the resources around you, if you have a greater knowledge of the resources around you, then you will have a greater respect for those resources,” Kimberly said. “That will also go on to effect how you use resources outside of your small neighborhood.”