Mostly hand-dug, irrigation canals and ditches weave their way in and out of residential and agricultural areas of the Salt Lake Valley. They are a lifeblood for farmers who use them to bring nourishment to their crops - necessary in Salt Lake County, in the second driest state in the union.
With an average of less than 15 inches of precipitation annually, Salt Lake-area water officials must collect water from the nearly 48 inches of snowfall each year.Irrigation canals are a heritage. The Utah pioneers were famous for building a network of ditches that turned a desert into a fertile valley. Their development dates to the first settlement in 1847. Even before the main group of pioneers entered the great Basin, Orson Pratt and an advance party had diverted City Creek water to soften the soil and prepare it for cultivation. Five acres of potatoes already had been planted and irrigated when the group arrived.
City Creek was one of the first waterways in the valley to be diverted by canals and years later one of the first water supplies to be diverted into pipes and distributed to the city's inhabitants for culinary use.
The main canal originally branched across the City and County Building Square, passing through what now is Sears at 800 South and finally joining the streams of Red Butte, Immigration and Parleys canyons. It then traveled to the Jordan River at 900 South and West Temple streets. The second fork flowed west across the temple grounds.
As the city expanded, networks of ditches were dug along the street to provide each city lot with both irrigation and culinary water. Families dipped water from the open ditches and carried it into the house for drinking and washing.
Originally, high councils of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints controlled the water. But as the city continued to grow, the responsibility was passed to LDS Church bishops, the City Council and, eventually, the Salt Lake City Public Utilities Department.
In 1850, the U.S. government surveyed Salt Lake City and reported: "A city has been laid out upon a magnificent scale, being nearly four miles in length and three in breadth . . . On the west it is washed by the waters of the Jordan, while to the south for 25 miles extends a broad level plane, watered by several little streams, which flowing down from the eastern hills form the great element of fertility and wealth to the community.
"Through the city itself flows an unfailing stream of pure, sweet water, which, by an ingenious mode of irrigation is made to traverse each side of every street, whence it is led into every garden spot, spreading life, verdure and beauty over what was heretofore a barren waste."
Today those waters still flow through over 1,000 miles of canals and ditches. And the water is as important to farmers now as it was over 100 years ago.
But the canals today are also a major part of the everyday lives of all residents in the valley. Every time people in Salt Lake City flush a toilet, take a shower or drink a cold glass of water, they are benefiting from the canal system. In 1888, the city entered an agreement with residents in Parleys Canyon. This agreement allowed for the pumping of undrinkable water from Utah Lake to irrigate those farms in the canyon and, in exchange, diverted clean creek water for city culinary use.
Leroy W. Hooton Jr., director of Salt Lake City's Department of Public Utilities, said those agreements still are in effect today. In fact, about 8 percent of the canal waters in Salt Lake City are used in homes for culinary purposes.
About 50 percent still is used by farmers for irrigation.
"There is a consistent decline in the use of irrigation water (for farming)," Hooton said. "But as Utah becomes more urbanized, there is a continuous increase in the need for municipal culinary water."
Bill Marcovecchio is one of the many professional farmers left in Utah. His father, Michael, came to the Salt Lake Valley in 1924 from Italy. Here he started a 17-acre farm.
The farming tradition continued as the family acquired more land, and now Marcovecchio farms approximately 340 acres in the Draper area. His son, Joe, helps and plans to take over soon when Marcovecchio retires.
"Farming here is still plentiful," he said.
During the crop-growing season, Marcovecchio irrigates his acreage every eight days for six hours. He prospers from the fresh cauliflower, cabbage, onions, sweet corn and other produce cultivated on his land.
"In our line of crops, sprinklers would do more damage than good," Marcovecchio said. "Without irrigation today, we still couldn't grow in this arid climate. It would be a waste of time, effort and seed."
Marcovecchio said no animosity exists between local farmers and the growing urban community. A medical center recently was built on a portion of his farm at 12300 South 200 West, and the Cottonwood Mall stands on land he used to irrigate and farm.
"It's inevitable that it (urbanization) is going to happen," he said. "I suspect in the next few years the farming will all be gone in those areas, but there's always available land further away from the city."
Even when farming is no longer an integral part of the valley's economic system, irrigation canals will remain valuable, Marcovecchio said. The canals and ditches act as a storm drainage system for the entire valley.
Without the canals, he said, it would cost taxpayers a devastating amount of money to build and maintain a storm system.
"Canals will always have a value, whether people realize it or not," Marcovecchio said.
Charlie Wilson or "Mr. Water" as his friends in irrigation call him, also has been in the water business for years. He began his career in high school in the 1930s, measuring canal depths to regulate the flow of water.
He later started working for the city Public Utilities Department and continued working for them until his retirement as director of Salt Lake City Public Utilities in 1980.
Today Wilson "relaxes" as chairman of the Metropolitan Water District and the Salt Lake representative on the Board of Canal Presidents.
Wilson had firsthand experience with some of the major changes in canals over the past 60 years. Driving around Salt Lake County, Wilson recalls the names of all the major canals and tells stories about problems the Public Utilities Department has had over the years. When he passes apartment buildings, housing developments and new commercial developments, Wilson recalls the names of major farmers who used to live there and can sometimes tell when they first connected to the city irrigation system.
Today, Hooton said, the job of director is a little different than it was years ago. But in most ways it is the same. He and his department still are responsible for getting water to the farmers and other residents.
In the past three years, Hooton said, there has been an added concern as the water level in Utah Lake continues to decline. Drought conditions have added to the job. In order to utilize more water, the department already has dredged several times in front of the pumping plant at Utah Lake.
"We've really been keeping a close eye on these canals this year, because Utah Lake is so low," Hooton said. "We are always looking for water where it's not supposed to be."
Waht to do if some falls into a canal:
- Don't jump in to save him.
- Encourage the person to keep his or her head above water and move with the current to the edge, where a foothold can be gained by grabbing weeds.
- If possible, throw the victim something to hang on to that floats, or pull the victim out with a rope. Attract attention and call for help.