Salt Lake City hailed for its protection of Wasatch Mountain watershed

Published: Tuesday, March 26 2013 2:20 p.m. MDT

Bob Beers fly fishes for small rainbow trout with his father Gary in Big Cottonwood Canyon in this file photo from Sept. 4, 2009. A new report praises Salt Lake City for its efforts to protect critical water resources in the nearby Wasatch Mountains.

Keith Johnson, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — The city's aggressive protection of its Wasatch Mountain watershed is singled out in a new report highlighting 10 communities in the West that are models for taking steps now to protect critical water resources.

Carpe Diem West's "New Visions Smart Choices" report released Tuesday details examples of "western water security" against the backdrop of a changing climate, singling out communities that are not waiting for global solutions before they act.

"They have seized the initiative, acting now to build resilience to help them cope with a changing future. Their work offers hope, along with practical models for other communities who want to act on that hope," said the report's introduction.

Some of the communities recognized are linking healthy farm practices to local water supply, while others stand out in the arena of urban conservation.

Salt Lake City was praised for its century of using green infrastructure, or "harnessing the power of nature," to protect and treat its water supplies, a choice the organization said has saved taxpayers millions.

"The famously clean water comes almost entirely from melting snow — a virtual reservoir high in the mountains east of the city," the report notes, adding that the water supply like so many places in the West is vulnerable to a warming climate that could cause rainfall instead of snowfall in the winter, snowpack shortages and earlier spring runoffs.

With an eye to those dual threats of compromised water supply and water quality, Salt Lake City has not been a passive bystander to the prospect of climate change, the report said.

"The city has boldly established itself as a West-wide leader in green infrastructure and watershed protection using a diverse set of tools."

Key among those tools is the city's ability to institute watershed protections beyond its jurisdictional boundaries. This extra-territorial authority granted to the city via state law allows it to pass ordinances that deal with watershed protections in the Wasatch Mountains area if that area is part of Salt Lake City's watershed.

"We have been able to use that so we have a sustainable water supply now and in the future," said Laura Briefer, water resources manager for the city's Department of Public Utilities.

Beyond its ordinance authority, the city instituted a $1.50 surcharge on water bills to go into a fund to acquire watershed lands and conservation easements from willing sellers. The watershed conservation account provides $1.5 million in funding per year and since its inception in the late 1980s, Briefer said the city has been able to purchase more than 26,000 acres of land within the central Wasatch Mountains.

The city also partners with the U.S. Forest Service, contracting with the federal agency to deploy backcountry rangers to protect watershed lands outside of city limits.

Briefer said the rangers do extensive public outreach to recreationists, advising them of rules and regulations that exist to protect water resources.

She said it is a testament to the community support for watershed protection that the rangers have not had to issue citations except in those rare instances where the violations are egregious.

"Generally the community is very supportive of our watershed protections," she said.

The other communities that were recognized include San Antonio for its water conservation program; Colorado's Front Range for its forests and watersheds restoration initiative; the water and electric board in Eugene, Ore., for partnering with farmers in a water stewardship program saving ratepayers as much as $130 million; and San Diego, for diversifying its water supply and embracing local sustainability efforts to reduce residential water use by 30 percent in the last seven years.

Carpe Diem West is a nonprofit organization founded in 2007 by a group of water policy leaders and experts that tapped representatives from water districts, water resource boards, universities, and conservation organizations.

E-mail: amyjoi@deseretnews.com, Twitter: amyjoi16

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