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Now about that 'creek' running through City Creek...

Published: Friday, March 30 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

The "river" that runs through the City Creek Center is a series of six fountains fed by the city water supply.

Lee Benson, deseret news

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SALT LAKE CITY — The new City Creek Center is earning rave notices all around. The stores. The restaurants. The beautiful decor. There's even a creek.

But, uh, about that creek.

It's not the actual City Creek.

It's more like a very long drink of water.

Because the water in the City Creek creek comes out of a tap, the same as your drinking water at home.

A lot of people apparently think otherwise, which I find reassuring since I was one of them.

Seeing the flowing water in the middle of the mall, I quickly jumped to the conclusion that City Creek, after all these years, had made it back to the surface.

It was a nostalgic notion. Back in the day, the canyon stream cascading out of the mountains on the northeast corner of the valley was the Nile of Salt Lake. It was the reason the Mormon Pioneers of 1847 settled where they did. They built their cabins next to the clear running water and used it to run their households and irrigate their crops.

They built a city around it and, moved by the same creative juices that named Big Mountain and Little Mountain, they called it … City Creek.

City Creek remained above ground and visible in downtown Salt Lake City for well over half a century, until 1909, when a culvert was dug under North Temple Street and the stream went underground toward the Jordan River.

It's stayed there ever since, with the exception of a brief public reappearance in 1983, the year of the huge and sudden snowmelt, when mud and debris clogged the culvert and the creek overflowed, turning State Street into a river all the way to 900 South.

Afterward, the city built a storm drain system to prevent that from ever happening again, and City Creek went back into its dungeon.

Until, one suspected, last week when the City Creek Center opened its doors and its floodgates.

It only made sense that the water flowing through a place called City Creek would be City Creek.

But nope. The stream that starts with a series of waterfalls on the northeast entrance and ends with more falls on the southwest entrance – and along the way includes rippling pools, ponds and one huge fountain in front of Nordstrom — is a man-made facsimile that only looks like a real creek.

It's actually 1,200 feet of stream composed of six separate fountains, each with its own water connection.

And every bit of it is "good old Salt Lake City tap water," confides Linda Wardell, the City Creek Center's general manager.

"People think it's a real creek and they're fascinated by it," Wardell says. "We're flattered by that, because we worked hard to produce an authentic re-creation. But that's what it is, a re-creation."

The water is continually recycled through the system. When evaporation takes its toll, they turn on the tap and add more water.

The plants that line the faux creek are authentic, though.

"They are real aquatic plants that were pulled from the banks of the real City Creek," says Wardell.

This, of course, is a blow to river-lovers and nature-lovers who have long lobbied to "daylight" City Creek, as well as other urban rivers.

Salt Lake City is constantly trying to work the daylighting of City Creek into its planning, says Tom Ward, deputy director of the city's Department of Public Utilities, but in the heart of downtown Salt Lake, he agrees "it makes more sense to create the facsimile. To do otherwise would be quite expensive and somewhat impractical."

He points out that the water that runs along North Temple in front of the LDS Conference Center isn't the actual City Creek either.

But Ward's a positive person and he paints a positive spin.

"Loosely speaking, you could say it is City Creek," he says. "The water comes from the City Creek watershed. It first fell on the mountain and then went into the city water supply. It's all from the same original source."

Still, no matter how you spin it, the stream at City Creek isn't City Creek.

A river doesn't run through it; tap water runs through it.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday.

Email: benson@desnews.com

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