BIG COTTONWOOD CANYON — Nancy Workman used to slide down the spillway in Big Cottonwood Creek as a child.
But the Salt Lake County mayor's grandchildren don't do that when she takes them up the canyon, and they know the reason why.
"We can't do that, grandma," they tell her. "We might have to drink that water."
Staying out of the streams is a message the city, county and U.S. Forest Service hope to put across to the millions of people who visit the Wasatch Front canyons. Tuesday, officials launched a water protection campaign called "Keep It Pure."
Many canyon visitors, including local residents, don't realize the water they are tempted to play in — or let their dogs loose in —is the same water they might be drinking within 24 hours, city officials said.
(Dogs and horses are prohibited in some canyons.) Wasatch Front canyons, which provide water to about 405,000 people.
Water managers are counting on Utahns to respond to the initiative the same way they did to the water conservation call prompted by the ongoing drought. Water use is down 11 percent this year over last.
"This program takes it one step further," said LeRoy Hooton, Salt Lake City's director of public utilities. "We want to protect the water at its source."
A total of 47 signs urging visitors not to pollute the streams will be posted at trailheads, campgrounds and parking lots in Big Cottonwood, Little Cottonwood, City Creek and Parleys canyons. Advertisements will run in newspapers and movie theaters. Watershed protection will be taught in fourth and ninth grades beginning next school year.
The federal government put up $290,00, and Salt Lake City added $280,000 for the program.
Some 3 million people visit the Cottonwood and Millcreek canyons each year for a variety of recreational activities, said Tom Tidwell, Wasatch-Cache National Forest supervisor. And that number is expected to grow, making personal stewardship an important practice given the scarcity of the water resource, he said.
Mayor Rocky Anderson said the city has taken some "extraordinary" steps to protect the watershed, including a 50-cent surcharge on residents' monthly water bills for a land acquisition fund. To date, the city has spent $3 million on about 1,500 canyon acres that likely would have been developed.
But Salt Lake City has not resorted to extreme measures.
"In other areas of the country, watersheds have been closed to the public to preserve water quality," Anderson said. "Here, we are taking a different approach."
An effort to curb the number of cars in the canyons, though, could be in the offing. Tidwell said he'd like to see more mass transit in the summers, like the buses that haul skiers in the winters. Call it the "picnic bus."
"The more vehicles you have up here, sooner or later one of them goes into the stream," he said.