The major canyons of the Central Wasatch Mountains provide reliable, high-quality, affordable water for more than 400,000 people within Salt Lake County. Salt Lake City and Sandy City rely heavily on these canyon streams as the foundation of each city’s water supplies. If we fail to manage these watersheds wisely, we run the risk of development, recreation and other uses polluting and degrading them for decades to come.
Our management and protection of these watersheds works exceedingly well. But a small group of developers is working to change state law that empowers all Utah cities, including ours, to protect water sources from pollution. Salt Lake City, Sandy City and other Salt Lake County communities that rely on this water supply have a health and safety obligation to protect it. We will vigorously oppose efforts that would limit our ability to steward this precious resource.
And we believe residents who appreciate turning on a faucet to the flow of dependably clean water would agree.
Like other public water suppliers across the nation, our communities depend on mountain headwaters for the majority of our drinking water supply. Municipalities across the country have watershed policies in place, including Flagstaff, Arizona, Santa Fe, New Mexico, Phoenix, Portland, Seattle, Denver, San Francisco, New York City and more. The main driver of these policies is the preservation of public health and economic vitality, compliance with federal and state drinking water standards and the preservation of the quantity and reliability of public water supplies.
Disruptions in clean water supply are not some dusty chapter of distant history. The recent water quality issues in Flint, Michigan — which ballooned into a major issue in the 2016 presidential race — have magnified how easily poorly managed drinking water can slip into toxicity. Notable examples of watershed contamination include a 1993 Milwaukee incident where cryptosporidium parvum, a parasite that causes gastrointestinal illness, made its way through the city’s water treatment process and distribution system, sickening 403,000 people, with about 100 deaths tied to the outbreak. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimated the total cost of outbreak-related illness at more than $96 million (in 1993 dollars), including health issues and productivity losses.
On Jan. 9, 2014, 10,000 gallons of the chemical MCHM spilled into the Elk River, upstream from the municipal water intake in Charleston, West Virginia, sickening hundreds of people and disrupting supply for 300,000 people in nine counties.
For decades, critics of our protective approach have tried to chip away at Salt Lake City’s watershed management. But our hard line grew out of experience. In the 1930s and into the 1940s, the City Creek Canyon watershed was contaminated through recreation overuse and grazing. This contamination led to a typhoid fever outbreak, sickening hundreds and causing several deaths. As a result, City Creek Canyon was closed to all public access and uses from 1950 through 1962. Fifty-five years later, the canyon is treasured by the public for recreation, although certain restrictions are in place that successfully protect water quality.
Thankfully, our collective communities have heeded these lessons on water quality disasters, and have prioritized the protection of our watersheds to avoid risk. This includes regulation, investment in land restoration, land preservation, stream restoration, sanitary facilities and watershed education. As a result, our drinking water is clean, and we have avoided public health disasters and economic impacts from water contamination that have so profoundly affected other communities.
Salt Lake City has had watershed ordinances on the books to control pollution-causing activities for decades, with the most recent update in 2001. Sandy City has a similar watershed ordinance in place. The ordinances limit development within 50 feet of waterways, regulate sanitary facilities, prohibit certain chemical use in the watersheds, and restrict dogs and other domestic animals in the watershed. Our watershed ordinances are in effect above the stream intakes to our water treatment plants in City Creek, Parleys, Big Cottonwood and Little Cottonwood canyons in Salt Lake County.
Because municipal water suppliers are responsible to the public to meet safe drinking water standards, it makes sense our cities have authority to manage watersheds. Our water ratepayers have also invested heavily in our cities’ water treatment and distribution infrastructure to bring clean water from our mountain streams to their homes. Protecting our watersheds protects their sizable investments.
The Central Wasatch Mountains are among the most heavily visited national forests in the nation, even surpassing Yellowstone National Park in annual visits. Our ordinances allow for the many uses the public enjoys in our local canyons — hiking, skiing and picnicking, for example. Resorts and restaurants are plentiful. But maintaining this balance requires coordination with the public and partnerships with federal, state, local, nonprofit and private entities to protect water resources. Our relationships with the U.S. Forest Service, the Utah Departments of Environmental Quality and Natural Resources, counties, health departments, our local ski resorts, nonprofit organizations and community volunteers allow us to leverage resources and collaborate to manage these watersheds.
An ongoing and one-sided conversation about Salt Lake City’s watershed protection policies was initiated last summer by the staff of the Utah Quality Growth Commission. This effort was fueled by water speculators and land developers critical of Salt Lake City’s watershed regulation. The goal of the commission and the handful of developers is to change Utah Code 10-8-15, which empowers all cities in Utah to protect drinking water sources that emanate outside city boundaries.
Weakening this law will restrict our ability to protect our drinking water sources from pollution. While the Quality Growth Commission has not yet made any recommendations, this may occur during a meeting open to the public and scheduled for Jan. 19 at 9 a.m. in the Seagull Room of the East Senate Office Building at the state Capitol.
As mayors of cities that depend on the high quality of our Wasatch Canyons watershed, we are dismayed by misleading and incorrect information about watershed management and jurisdiction that critics have distributed to commission members, the media and the public to push a change in this important water policy.
We ask the commission and state lawmakers to take a reasoned approach, based on a fair and deliberate review of accurate data and multiple perspectives.
We will always stand for strong watershed management and protection. Because Salt Lake Valley residents stand so much to lose — their health, especially — we ask the Quality Growth Commission and our Legislature to fight against misinformation and claims having no basis in fact in making water policy that will affect nearly a half-million people, as well as future generations.
Jackie Biskupski is mayor of Salt Lake City. Tom Dolan is mayor of Sandy City.