Almost from the moment the Mormon pioneers arrived in Salt Lake Valley in 1847, people started messing with the Jordan River — damming, channeling, straightening, dredging, deepening, reinforcing the banks, regulating water flows.
The motives, primarily flood reduction, were laudable. But now, after all those decades and dollars spent manipulating the Jordan, government agencies are awakening to a sobering realization encapsulated in the following word:
"We went in and monkeyed with it, and now we're spending millions of dollars to put it back," said Dick Buehler, Wasatch Front area manager for the state Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. "Our engineers have learned you don't mess with Mother Nature. She wins."
Starting when Lake Bonneville receded 10,000 years ago and lasting until 150 years ago, when the settlers arrived, the Jordan River meandered and wound and curved and split itself along the 44 miles from Utah Lake to the Great Salt Lake, creating more than 12,000 acres of low-land riparian (riverbank) wildlife habitat. The river would flood during
spring flows, creating a flood plain supporting a wide variety of plants, animals and birds. It served as a green belt between the west desert and the mountains.
"It was an incredible mosaic," said Wayne Martinson, Utah Wetlands Coordinator for the National Audubon Society.
Even with some canal diversions, waste dumping and other impacts, man and river lived together in relative harmony until the 1950s, when man began large-scale channeling and straightening of the flow. With development encroaching on the flood plain, governments wanted to reduce the flooding and the river's tendency to move laterally over time.
A new apartment owner, after all, would tend to look askance at a river that visited his living room every spring.
The effect: drying out of the flood plain and elimination of most of the riparian habitat. The yellow-breasted chats and willow flycatchers whose chirping kept the pioneers awake at night began to go elsewhere.
The irony: Many of the efforts didn't do any good anyway. Flooding continued to occur, and unless the banks were reinforced with ugly rip rap (stone lining) the river path continued to move.
Making matters worse, once people started realizing nature's way was best, putting all the curves and oxbows and plants back was already a very expensive proposition.
"We're having to go back and tear out everything we did in the 1950s, '60s and '70s," said Steve Jensen, who is heading up the Jordan rehabilitation effort for Salt Lake County. "It isn't a cheap process."
An acre of riverside wetland runs up to $45,000 nowadays, big money for governments on tight budgets. Agencies are getting by with federal grants, private donations and a $2.3 million damage settlement from the Sharon Steel and Midvale Slag Superfund sites.
In addition to being expensive, the process is complex. The Jordan River runs by or through 15 different municipalities, and almost that many state and federal agencies share jurisdiction.
One coordinating body, the Jordan River Sub-Basin Watershed Council, has disbanded, and its future is uncertain. Coordination is a big topic of conversation nowadays.
"We don't want to see two communities do everything they can to preserve this and the community in the middle put in a big office complex," Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson said.
An example of the red tape: South Jordan recently threw up its hands on preserving a 111-acre swath of riverbank at 10600 South when its permit from the Army Corps of Engineers was denied and an Environmental Protection Agency grant began reaching its time limit. (The deal isn't totally dead yet, but things are very much up in the air.)
"Given the complex land ownership pattern along the Jordan River that includes federal, state, local government and private interests, only through the combined efforts of multiple partners . . . can this vision be achieved," states a "conservation corridor" report released this month by the Audubon Society, Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Currently, 341 acres in scattered places along the river are set aside for riparian habitat. The report recommends increasing that to 1,500 acres, about 12 percent of what used to exist.
That's a sizable jump, but one that activists are confident can be done, especially in Utah County and the southern portion of Salt Lake County where much of the land is still open.
The habitat rehabilitation is separate from trail development along the Jordan River, and the two can occasionally be at odds. For example, bicyclists have beaten their own dirt paths off the gravel parkway trail at 3900 South and created a BMX park in the middle of an adjacent riparian habitat.
More often, however, the two dovetail. "(Trail users) would just as soon see a few birds and wetlands instead of people's back yards," Buehler said.
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The few riparian habitat areas that now exist along the river, many of which are being busily planted with native shrubs and trees by volunteers, are like small jewels in the midst of the urban jungle. Stand at the intersection of Bangerter Highway and the Jordan River and you have to yell to be heard over the traffic. But go under the bridge, at a proposed habitat site, and the sound is magically muffled. You can hear chickadees chirping.
"There's something about the visual, emotional, spiritual nature of trees and birds that is really important to people," said Jeff Salt of the Great Salt Lake Audubon Society.