Pristine to Polluted: The Journey of an Urban Stream

08 May 2014
Published in Science and Society
Written by  Ross Chambless
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Salt Lake City’s Red Butte Creek offers a unique opportunity for scientists to study how a mountain stream changes when it enters an urban environment. As part of an ongoing series called “Follow the Flow”, that examines our relationship to our watersheds in Utah, this is the story of the journey of an urban stream.

Entering the Red Butte Canyon Research Natural Area offers a rare glimpse of a near pristine watershed that’s right next to a bustling metropolis. It is surrounded by a 7-square mile fenced enclosure that’s managed jointly by the Forest Service and the University of Utah. The fence normally keeps anyone who’s not a scientist, out.

At the creek side, lies what looks sort of like an inert robot, with a white box for a head, a solar panel for a hat, and two black cylinder arms reaching into the water. The GAMUT station (Gradients Along Mountain to Urban Transitions) is one of five instrument stations installed last summer with funding from iUTAH, an organization that supports water research, to gather data from this creek as it flows out of the protected research area and into Salt Lake City. Hydrologist David Eiriksson recently got the stations setup to transmit data every 15 minutes to his University of Utah laboratory.

“Each one of these guys is measuring something different. This one’s dissolved oxygen. This one’s measuring pH. This one’s measuring conductivity. You can think of it as how salty the water is. This one’s measuring chlorophyll and blue-green algae, and this one is dissolved organic matter,” said Eriksson. “Really pretty neat data coming out of these.”

Eiriksson says the data is still provisional, but he hopes these multiple stations along the stream will tell a story over time. The data is also being shared with researchers at Utah State and Brigham Young Universities, who can compare it with similar data collected from the Provo and Logan River watersheds. Eventually it will be made available to the public through the internet.

“We’re starting to develop a long term record,” explained Eriksson. “That’s one of the goals of the project. To get some baseline data that researchers can then start to ask other questions.” 

How this watershed came to be protected ties back to when U.S. soldiers arrived in 1862 and built Fort Douglas at the mouth of the canyon. The story goes that as they kept their cannons trained suspiciously on the Mormons in the valley below, they realized that rock quarrying and animal grazing in the canyon was polluting their drinking water. In 1890, the Territory District Court declared the creek’s waters the sole property of the U.S. Army, and they built the fence to safeguard it.

Today, this creek is no longer used for drinking, but in the protected Research Natural Area, the water is clear. Red sandstone boulders and a thick canopy of gamble oak, mountain maple, and other native vegetation cradle the stream banks. Just below this point the water flows into Red Butte reservoir that’s managed by the Central Utah Water Conservancy District for growing endangered native June Sucker fish.

“There hasn’t been a lot of people up in this watershed. Never had a lot of grazing. Never had a lot of development. There’s not a paved road,” said Eriksson. “So it’s really a unique thing to have such a pristine watershed so close to a major urban center.”

A short ride back down the canyon, and out of the protected research area, the scene changes quickly.
In the area known as Research Park south of the University of Utah, construction crews erect another building on land next to the creek that’s already paved and packed-in by brick, steel, and concrete structures. Behind the buildings, and through a tangle of bushes and tree branches, is another hidden aquatic station.

“One of the things we really see, is how much flashier this site is than up higher. By flashy, I mean the response to rain is much more dramatic here than up higher in the watershed,” said Eriksson. “The reason is we have a bunch of concrete. Instead of rainwater infiltrating, it runs down, into the concrete, then into storm drains, and then down here.”
The creek’s banks are noticeably deeper and eroded from heavy and fast storm water run-off.

Erosion isn’t the only problem brought on by storm water. A bit further down the stream, Kelly Brown, Salt Lake City’s storm water manager, uses his long handled rake to pull debris, and anything else that gets caught in a creek storm grate.

“Everything. Trash. Leaves. Limbs. Bicycles. Whatever gets into the water,” remarked Brown.

Brown says he routinely inspects the creek downstream too, as it meanders behind backyards, and goes underground through a series of culvert tunnels. The creek makes a final appearance into Liberty Park Lake, before disappearing again under 1300 South, a bustling roadway that runs directly west. In the 1920’s for flood control protection, the city moved the creek underground. It flows through both a rectangular culvert tunnel large enough to drive a car through, along with a 60-inch cylinder pipe running directly under the street.

With the water out of sight, it’s also unfortunately out of mind. Currently, several streams along the Wasatch Front are impaired by the State of Utah, with degraded water quality conditions.

“There are a lot of people in my experience, that somehow believe it’s all treated. The storm water that goes down that grate ends up going through a treatment plant. And that’s just not the case. It’s collected in storm drain systems in the streets or runs down the curb and gutter, but ultimately across our city, and in most urban cities, it ends up in the natural waterways,” said Jeff Neirmeyer is Salt Lake City’s Director of Public Utilities. 

In recent decades, the City and health officials have sought to educate people on the problem of letting household chemicals or fertilizers wash downstream. What’s more, water managers increasingly view riparian corridors as “green infrastructure”, ecological systems that are just as important as water and sewer infrastructure.

If maintained, urban streams provide environmental benefits such as habitat for wildlife, but also practical benefits such as flood damage control, shading, nutrient filtration, and sediment trapping. To protect existing open streams from further degradation, Salt Lake City now forbids developments within one hundred feet of creeks. And property owners and developers are given incentives to install detention basins to slow the runoff.

Not all challenges faced by urban streams are within our control. A few years ago the Red Butte Creek met one of its biggest threats.

In 2010, a pipeline owned by Chevron ruptured, dumping nearly 33,000 gallons of oil straight into the creek. The spill and its subsequent cleanup upset not only stabilizing vegetation along the stream bank, but also the chemical and biological balance of the stream itself. A $4.5 million Chevron settlement is now paying for long-term mitigation and enhancement efforts, like replanting native vegetation.

Dry years coupled with historic water claims have become another recent hindrance for the stream. Salt Lake City and the Mount Olivet Cemetery near the University of Utah clashed recently over their irrigation needs after the cemetery drained the creek dry for several summers to keep their cemetery lawns green. Jeff Neirmeyer says the City engaged the State Engineer to mediate the conflict.

“When we get into these drought cycles, we have very little water coming in, and a bigger demand for it. And people question, is the cemetery the right use? Is it better to have instream flows and down? And that’s where the tension comes in,” Neirmeyer explained. 

A few years ago, University of Utah researchers and students recognized the many tensions and challenges facing urban streams, but also the growing scientific interest in Red Butte Creek that runs through their campus. Brenda Bowen, a professor of Geology and Co-Director of the University’s Global Change and Sustainability Center, says they formed a “Friends of Red Butte Creek” group to coordinate stakeholders, and what’s being learned from studying the stream’s urban transition.

“We really have an opportunity to study the system, but also a responsibility for stewardship. We’re the first one’s it’s passing through. And this integration of, the opportunity to study it. The responsibility for stewardship, and this chance to integrate it into the University community. Use it for academics, for research, for teaching. For part of the student experience,” explained Bowen.

In the coming months and years scientists will continue to interpret this creek, and its story. Miles downstream from the University, behind a blue dumpster and service station on Salt Lake City’s west side, Red butte creek completes its nearly 12-mile journey from its headwaters.  The stream flows quietly and rather unceremoniously out of two concrete culverts into the Jordan River. From here, this main artery of the Salt Lake Valley will take the water into the Great Salt Lake.

In many ways, the water exiting these culverts holds traces of everything from within a half-mile to a mile of the creek’s urban watershed. The same stream that gets flashed and flooded, diverted and dried up, restrained and buried, and even occasionally poisoned, ends up here. It casts a reflection of the overcast sky above and also a reflection of our City and the people who live here.

This is the second story in a five part series by Explore Utah Science on research to maintain and protect Utah's water. The "Follow the Flow" series is made possible by iUtah, a National Science Foundation–funded statewide effort to maintain and improve water sustainability.


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