1 of 4
Michael Brandy, Deseret Morning News
Bottles fill with the spring water that has been there at least since pioneer days when records show that men watered their oxen there on their way back and forth between the Salt Lake LDS Temple site and the granite quarry.

Rain or shine, day or night, people stream in — canteens, bottles and jugs in tow — with a frequency that parallels the steady flow of water they've come seeking.

For over a century, many residents from all over the Salt Lake Valley and beyond have made their way to the corner of 500 East and 800 South to fill up with fresh spring water that flows naturally year-round from an artesian well.

The spring has been there at least since pioneer days when records show that men watered their oxen there on their way back and forth between the Salt Lake LDS Temple site and the granite quarry, said LeRoy Hooton Jr., director of public utilities for Salt Lake City. In 1979, the city dubbed the site Artesian Well Park, investing $79,450 in improving the small grassy tree-covered area: setting the spigots in a brick case and adding a drinking fountain, benches and walkways.

The free and accessible water is used by a broad spectrum of people — anywhere from homeless people to very affluent people, said Eileen Casey, a manufacturer's representative who works in a home adjacent the park.

Most people who frequent the spring say they prefer the water's taste to municipal water, but other reasons for using the water vary as widely as the people who use it.

Merlin Barlow, a Bountiful resident, filled several old juice bottles with spring water and loaded them into a crate as he explained that he'd heard a lot of bad reports about the fluoride added to Bountiful municipal water.

"I'd use tap water to wash dishes and that's about it," he said. "It can cause all kinds of health problems."

Besides that, the spring water tastes better than city water, and there's no chlorine added to it, said Barlow, who makes a trip to the spring once a week.

"The water tastes good," he said. "It makes your coffee and tea taste better. It makes everything taste better."

He learned by experience not to fill old milk jugs with water because they retain the sour milk taste and smell. He's been using the well as a water source for roughly 12 years.

Randy Mitchell of Magna said he remembers coming to the spring as a boy to get water for his grandmother.

"Grandma — she was a health nut and she just thought it was a lot better than city water," Mitchell said. "That's all she drank."

Now grown, he's been coming back to the spring for a year and a half because his wife prefers the spring water to both city water and the water from his well in Herriman.

"It really is a lot better," said Wendy Mitchell, his wife. "We have a nice filter in our refrigerator and that makes (the city water) taste a lot better, but it's still Magna water. I'd much rather come out here twice a month and be totally happy."

Heather Willes, a Salt Lake resident, has also returned to drinking spring water after a long hiatus. She said as a mother she wants to give her two children the most nutritious water she can. She believes the spring water is more healthy because it doesn't have any added chemicals.

Willes said she doesn't have much space to store water at home, so she has to stop by the spring twice a week. Sometimes that's kind of a pain because there are often lines to fill up water containers, and her children get restless waiting in the car.

But the water just tastes a lot better, she said.

Heinz Gilgen of Salt Lake City disagreed.

"It doesn't taste; that's the good part about it," said Gilgen, who has been collecting his drinking water from the spring for 50 years. There's nothing bad about city water, this is just better, he said. He took a container of spring water on a road trip to Portland 30 years ago, and after a week of no refrigeration it still tasted better than the water out of the tap there.

Gilgen frequently talks with people at the spring while waiting his turn in line. He said some people come specifically to get water for their plants. Others think the spring water has healing benefits.

Hooton said over the years working with public utilities he's come across a number of people who have felt the water is essential to their health.

A few years ago when Hooton announced he would have to temporarily close the park in order to replace some pipes, he received a panicked telephone call from an Ogden man. The man begged him not to close off the spring until he had a chance to fill up his water jugs. The man said his wife depended on the water, Hooton said.

The water does have a high mineral content, said Royal DeLegge, director of environmental health for the Salt Lake Valley Health Department.

"Mineral waters are traditionally viewed by a lot of people as having therapeutic effects, but it's an open question as to whether the science supports that or not," DeLegge said.

Because of the high sodium content, the water may actually be detrimental to people with high blood pressure, he said.

City officials test the spring water for bacteria twice a month and perform a complete chemical analysis of the water once a year to ensure it remains clean and safe to drink, Hooton said.

The aquifer that feeds the spring draws water from a large recharge area that extends to Red Butte Creek, beneath the University of Utah, he said. The creek may contribute water to the aquifer.

But it could take 15 years for the water near the university to percolate into the ground and reach the aquifer, Hooton said. Water five blocks east of the spring will take three years before returning to the surface at Artesian Well Park.

As long as the water continues to flow naturally, the city will continue to pipe the water and maintain the system, he said.

E-mail: sbills@desnews.com