The bottom line we only have a limited amount of water. It is not replaceable and if anything it is going to be reduced because of climate change, and we really need to protect what we have. We can't lose it because of poor choices or poor planning. —Jeff Niermeyer, Salt Lake City's Department of Public Utilities
SALT LAKE CITY — In Hall of Famer Steve Young's finest football season, he threw for nearly 4,000 yards and 35 touchdowns, but he hasn't been able to advance an inch when it comes to getting water for his mountain property up Little Cottonwood Canyon.
In a style reminiscent of a Wild West gun battle, the decades-old fight over water development near Alta is rife with drama, including mud-slinging accusations of Salt Lake City's stance as a monopolistic fear mongerer and a showdown that pits city against state.
The lawsuits have flied over funneling water to residential lots that exist outside service boundaries imposed by a contract forged between Alta and the city in 1976 that was subsequently bolstered by a 1991 restrictive watershed protection ordinance.
Salt Lake City makes no apologies for sticking to its guns over what it says is critical watershed protection.
"This actually goes back to the very early history of Salt Lake City and a recognition from the pioneers that when they moved into this area that water was going to be a very precious resource," Jeff Niermeyer, director of Salt Lake City's Department of Public Utilities, said.
"So from the very early times of Salt Lake City, we have had a fairly aggressive watershed protection and water resource program."
Protecting the water
Salt Lake City's actual watershed includes four primary canyons that deliver water to nearly half a million people — City Creek, Parleys and Big Cottonwood and Little Cottonwood canyons.
They are part of seven watershed areas, also called drainages, that occupy nearly 190 square miles in a gravity-fed water delivery system that requires little filtration because of the quality of the water that comes out of the mountains. From the time that drop of water falls at the top of Albion Basin up Little Cottonwood Canyon, it is in the tap of a house or business within 24 hours.
"It moves really fast," said Laura Briefer, the city's water resources manager. "We don't have a slow-moving system based on retention."
Niermeyer likes to pull out two mason jars to demonstrate the purity of water that comes from melting snowpack and mountain streams and what happens to water as it encounters development. One sample of water is fairly clear, while the other jar contains charcoal gray, murky water.
"Every time you have urbanization, water quality degrades," Niermeyer said. And that's provided the backdrop for tough development battles.
Salt Lake City has faced several lawsuits over its refusal to budge on providing any new water for development at Alta's Albion Basin beyond what is outlined in its service contract.
That consistent refusal impacts families like the Youngs, who since 2011 have tried to get enough water to build and sustain the property.
"Nothing's changed," said Sherry Young, mother of Steve Young. "They haven't budged."
Salt Lake City is also one of several parties to a lawsuit against the state engineer for allowing upstream use of water from a right that exists farther down the canyon.
Conservation groups that want to preserve the scenic mountain area say the water rights decision by State Engineer Kent Jones will pave the way to more residential development and will ultimately impair water quality.
Jones, for his part, has said he applied state law appropriately.
Over the years, outspoken critics have accused the city of being a water cartel and say it "weaponizes" water by advocating a no development stance to the detriment of ski resorts being able to thrive or residents being able to enjoy their property.
The city is unapologetic.
"We have the ability to severely restrict water availability in those agreements if there is not surplus water," Briefer said. "Trying to educate people on why we have the authority and policies that we do in our watersheds has not always been easy."
In October, the town of Alta pursued proposals for a conceptual design of a new "town center," with officials acknowledging that such an identifiable community anchor would be desirable should a transit stop ever be built.
In the proposal, town officials acknowledge that an impediment to that town center is drinking water supply limitations imposed by the surplus water contract it has with Salt Lake City.
"It is a tight boundary there. We do have some potential to develop within our water contract, but if everything gets built out we are a little bit short," said Alta Town Mayor Tom Pollard. "There is not a lot of wiggle room in that contract."
And the city isn't inclined to be sympathetic to Alta's growing pains.
"The issue of water has come up before. Alta has already bumped up against its current contract with Salt Lake City," Briefer said. "Their future development density is limited, and our ordinance does not allow us to expand our surplus water agreement."
The city's entrenched watershed protection stance goes back decades, and has a helping lift from the Utah Legislature, which granted it "extra jurisdictional" authority to put in water protection mechanisms beyond its boundaries.
By the late 1920s, Salt Lake City had formed a commission to look at what it would take to supply water to a population of 400,000.
As early as 1905, the city pushed to have what was then the Forest Reserve instill protections for the canyons, and in 1914, it got a law passed by Congress that land from Parleys Canyon north to City Creek would be managed by the Forest Service for the benefit of the public water supply. Twenty years later, that area was extended to include Big and Little Cottonwood canyons.
The city ran into water quality threats from sheep herders, grazing, the cutting of timber and mining. But it was ultimately a recreation-minded public that caused one of the most drastic protectionist decisions — a more than decadelong closure of City Creek Canyon.
"It was so heavily used from recreation and some grazing purposes, people got really sick from drinking the water," Briefer said. The canyon stayed closed from 1950 to 1962.
The city now imposes "really restrictive" rules on its watershed canyons, especially above a trio of treatment plants at City Creek, Big and Little Cottonwood canyons and in particular prohibits dogs, motorized vehicles and overnight camping, Niermeyer said.
Searching for balance
Despite what some critics assert, Niermeyer says it is a balanced approach.
"There are some communities that have drawn a line around their watershed, and locked the key and no one goes up there, period," he said. "This area has taken a middle ground approach where we allow certain types of uses, and that is where all the pressure comes. There are those who have done no controls and those are the ones in a world of hurt."
Some of the watershed problems elsewhere in the country have been infamously expensive with impacts and dangerous to the public.
The Centers For Disease Control put the cost of a parasitic outbreak in Milwaukee's water supply at $96.2 million because a pair of treatment plants failed to properly clean the water. At least 403,000 people were sickened in the 1993 incident.
More recently, the Denver water system was hit with $26 million in costs to handle a sedimentation problem caused by the aftermath of already devastating wildfires.
Briefer and Niermeyer say that over the years, communities have learned that the best and most effective watershed protection happens before a problem starts.
In New York City, leaders pushed an initiative to purchase $2 billion in land rather than spend $8 billion to $10 billion on a new water treatment plant.
Salt Lake City, like New Haven, Connecticut, and Philadelphia, has pursued a steady land acquisition program to protect future water supplies and limit land uses.
In 1989, Salt Lake City established a special fund and levies a monthly surcharge of $1.50 to residents to pay for watershed protection efforts. The fund generates about $1.5 million a year. The city owns 27,000 acres in the watershed.
The city's efforts to protect the watershed have earned it national recognition. Just this month, it was singled out by the White House as one of 16 cities across the nation as a "climate change champion," in part because of how it tries to ensure a sustainable water supply.
Both Niermeyer and Briefer caution that despite the work that has already been done, more vigilance will be needed to counter the potential threats of population growth and climate change.
"If you look at any growth projection for the Salt Lake area, there is none of them that say we are not going to be growing robustly," Niermeyer said, adding that it won't be all that simple to accommodate another 600,000 to 700,000 people in the valley and 150,000 more on the Wasatch back.
There are currently oil pipelines planned near the watershed or proposals like One Wasatch, which seeks to link all the ski resorts.
Nathan Rafferty, president of the trade group Ski Utah, is promoting the One Wasatch on behalf of the ski resorts and said such a merger would not prove harmful to the area's water supply.
"I don't think you can make a very good case that the One Wasatch concept as proposed would have a detrimental effect on the water quality. The city is understandably worried about more development in the canyons, but I think that the development that is more impactful to water is the parking lots, more roofs and things that take up more space."
While there may be disagreement over potential impacts, discussions are continuing on a range of development proposals.
At the same time, Niermeyer says city leaders realize their veto power in these arenas is limited to control over water, and it is better to be a partner at the table rather than a solitary antagonist in a corner.
"These mountains not only provide our water supply, but they bring a lot of amenities for why people want to live here, why they want to bring their businesses here," Niermeyer said. "They are this economic underpinning that also supports us."
For the past two years, the city has been part of the Mountain Accord planning process that is unfolding for the Wasatch Canyons — a collaborative effort that attempts to carve out a future that balances the often competing interests of environmental protection, economic development and a vibrant transportation system.
"It really has all the stakeholders saying we are seeing these pressures here and we really have to do this right. We don't want to do things that will make things far worse. We want to do things comprehensively," Niermeyer said.
With water rising to the top of so many public policy priority lists, Niermeyer said it is critical right decisions are made along the way.
"The bottom line we only have a limited amount of water. It is not replaceable and if anything it is going to be reduced because of climate change, and we really need to protect what we have. We can't lose it because of poor choices or poor planning."
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