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Contaminated Canyons: Vital Watershed Threatened By Irresponsible Visitors

SALT LAKE COUNTY, Utah — Known for their breathtaking beauty and endless recreational opportunities, Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons hold another invaluable resource — water.

“This is the water supply for the largest city in the second most arid state in the nation,” Patrick Nelson, manager for the Salt Lake City Watershed Management program, said, noting that the canyons’ important role as a water source is often overlooked. “Not everybody knows this is a watershed.”

Thousands of visitors flock to the canyons in the summer, but their lack of awareness or plain disregard for basic rules, such as no dogs and no swimming, can have major negative effects. Nelson said there is a larger issue at stake.

“This is about protecting public health,” Nelson said. “People they want to have fun, they want to go off-roading — who doesn’t, right? — they want to go swimming, they want to bring their dogs up here. A lot of our rangers do education for people who are so awestruck at the mouth of the canyon they miss the 20 signs that are there.”

Signs throughout the canyons greet visitors along roadways, at trailheads and in parking lots and make clear the restrictions meant to keep the water pure, but a records request filed by KSL Investigators show 72 citations were issued by the Unified Police Department for violations in the past year. Still, there are only 3-4 officers at a time tasked with monitoring over 64,000 acres.


Those charged with ensuring that the water supply stays clean and usable, are asking that the public do their part.

“We still need all the help we can get keeping the source water clean,” Nelson said.

On an Aug. 1 hike in Big Cottonwood Canyon, Lance and Karlie Haslem mentioned the trash they sometimes see on the trails and other violations of the watershed regulations.

“We were just up there and we saw somebody putting her feet in, in Lake Blanche,” Karlie Haslem said.

Simple violations like that can make a large impact, Marian Rice, Water Quality and Treatment Administrator for Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities, said. The watershed rules must be strict because the treatment plants are not designed to handle large amounts of contaminants.

“They’re walking in their water source right now,” Rice said. “We want to keep the source water clean. Our treatment is designed for the clean water and if our source water got dirty enough, changing our treatment system would be costly.”

Rice said contamination could lead to various, serious bacteria in the water from Giardia to E. Coli. She said keeping dogs — and their waste — out of the water is a seemingly simple, but crucial requirement.

“They carry all sorts of viruses, bacteria, and pathogens we don’t want in (the water),” she said. “This is a risk we can actually mitigate. Yes, there’s wildlife out here, and we treat for that, but when you bring up so many dogs…

“This is our water source for 340,000 people in the valley, so maintaining that clean source, helping maintain public health, is our primary role.”

David Gardner, assistant general manager at WaterPro/Draper Irrigation — Draper’s largest supplier of drinking water — said there was a time when they tried to be flexible with dogs in the area. At Corner Canyon, dogs were allowed to roam within 100 feet of the water with the understanding that dog owners would clean up after them as needed.

“They weren’t able to enforce it and keep it up,” Gardner said. “We had been taking E. Coli samples and it was getting way up there. The water was getting bad enough we couldn’t treat the water without blending it with other sources. As a standalone supply it wouldn’t even qualify for treatment.”

In 2016, they went to the city and asked that dogs be banned from the area. Gardner said the result has been a 65 percent reduction in E. Coli.

“It is so much better than it was,” he said.

Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons, said he would like to see more done to protect the watershed and the canyons themselves.

“You can’t go up there with your dog, you can’t get in the water, you can’t park alongside the road, yet we see this activity every day,” he said. “The beauty of this place is being challenged and compromised… We need to do more to make sure that people are respecting these places.”

He said he would like to see greater access to mass transit year round. Buses run from the mouths of the canyon to ski areas in the winter, but don’t operate during the summer.

Fisher said he would also like to see a stronger law enforcement presence and increased citations to act as a deterrent. He suggested providing information for visitors about other areas where dogs and swimming are allowed to also alleviate the issue.

“We’re very concerned about the use and the increasing use of the canyons,” he said. “I feel like we are loving those canyons to death.”

As far as the water supply goes, it’s fairly simple, Nelson said.

“It’s just a smattering of everything,” he said. “Please keep your dogs at home, unless they’re a service animal, and keep out of the water.”

When it comes to preserving the beauty and integrity of the canyons and its waters, the responsibility lies with anyone who wants to see them endure.

“This is nature, we’re given it,” Karlie Haslem said. “If we abuse it, it’s not going to last forever.”

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