Sixty percent of Salt Lake Valley residents questioned in a Salt Lake City watershed survey said drinking water - not economic development or recreation - is "the most significant benefit" provided by Wasatch Front canyons.

The findings pleased city Public Utilities Director LeRoy Hooton Jr., who said residents attending public hearings on the Salt Lake County canyons master plan seemed more concerned about economic development issues."I was concerned early on in the public hearing process that there was an absence of concern for water quality," Hooton said.

"There is a lot of concern for development issues, both for and against, but lost in the discussion was any great concern over water quality," he said.

The public's concern for water quality issues is important because under Public Utilities' master plan adopted last April, the department must conduct a water education program, Hooton said. The education program would have been less effective if citizens were not concerned about water issues and "had a point of view different than ours," he said.

The survey, conducted by the University of Utah Survey Research Center, found that of the 439 valley residents questioned this fall, 60.7 percent said drinking water was the most important benefit of the canyons.

Thirty-one percent said recreation was the most significant benefit and 6 percent said economic development was the most significant. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percent.

Much of Salt Lake City's watershed is in several Wasatch Canyons, including Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons southeast of the city.

Hooton said the survey results were not intended to influence the content of Salt Lake County's canyon master plan. But he acknowledged the results offer "leverage" for protecting the watershed in the canyons affected by the master plan.

"I feel awfully comfortable pressing my point when we have the public's support," Hooton said.

Salt Lake Valley residents are willing to restrict their activities in the canyons to protect water, the survey found. Ninety percent support use restrictions in the canyon to protect drinking water.

The restrictions include banning domestic animals from the canyons and prohibiting swimming and wading, the survey said.

Of those questioned, 53 percent are very concerned and 37.7 percent are somewhat concerned about the quality of canyon streams used for culinary purposes, the survey found.

In other findings, only 10.5 percent of those surveyed participate in downhill skiing in the canyons two to five days a year. Thirty-eight percent use the canyons for picnicking or camping two to five days a year, the survey said.

"This other information is very helpful in terms of item-by-item management," Hooton said.

Not all of the survey's results are consistent with the city's watershed plans, Hooton said. Public Utilities is neutral on a proposed interconnect chairlift in the canyon while 71 percent of those surveyed support it.

Area residents are generally split over more proposed ski area development and expanded overnight lodging facilities, the survey found. "We're sort of on the side of not developing too much in the canyons," Hooton said.

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