WASHINGTON — While clean drinking water became a priority this week for Oakley and Lindon residents as they boiled water contaminated by floods, it's always on the mind of Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah.

Matheson, along with Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and a U.S. Forest Service official, addressed the House Natural Resources Committee on Thursday. The trio spoke on legislation expanding watershed protection in the Wasatch Front canyons, saying it is a shared priority.

"From the time of the Mormon pioneer settlement, Utah's growth in arid northern Utah relied on this life-giving source of pristine water flowing down these canyon streams," Matheson told the committee.

Matheson's bill, HR5009, the Wasatch Wilderness and Watershed Protection Act, was introduced in April.

The legislation would protect 26,000 acres of land in Mill Creek and Big and Little Cottonwood canyons. The proposed land-protection measure would set aside 15,541 acres as wilderness and another 10,480 acres as "special management" areas with concessions to heli-skiing — off-trail downhill skiing accessed by a helicopter. The proposal does away with an all-terrain vehicle trail but preserves another trail for mountain biking.

Becker, testifying on behalf of Salt Lake City, which actively manages the watershed, said keeping the mountain ecosystems whole and healthy is critical to the city's mission of supplying a growing population with clean drinking water.

"We walk out our doors and into a vibrant downtown Salt Lake City or into open and spectacular mountain terrain. The landscape is truly unmatched, as are the pressures to develop," he said, adding that the areas meet all of the qualifications for a wilderness designation — a tool needed in order to protect the watershed.

"The additional 26,000 acres of protection afforded by this proposed legislation will ensure future generations of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake Valley residents continue to have access to high-quality water supply," Becker said. "Protection of our watersheds is critical for our future health and security, particularly as we face combined challenges due to population growth, increased water demand, climate change and drought."

Addressing the committee, Matheson noted the extensive collaboration with numerous stakeholders that resulted in the bill. He highlighted support from Snowbird Ski Resort, the mountain-biking community, the outdoor recreation industry, environmentalists and local government leaders.

Joel Holtrop, deputy chief of the National Forest System, said his agency supports wilderness expansion and looks forward to working through issues regarding access to and maintenance of water delivery systems.

Matheson said the bill would create a new 7,759-acre wilderness area and an additional 7,782 acres to the existing wilderness areas of Mount Olympus, Twin Peaks and Lone Peak.

Additionally, a new wilderness area of 7,759 acres designated on Grandeur Peak-Mount Aire proposed under the bill would be named in honor of the late Rep. Wayne Owens, a popular Democrat who died of a heart attack in 2002 while working in Israel. Owens had also proposed legislation more than 20 years ago that would have put 5 million wilderness acres in Utah off limits to vehicles.

Contributing: Amy Joi O'Donoghue

e-mail: astewart@desnews.com