Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Mark Roia, a field technician for the Salt Lake County Watershed Planning and Restoration division, on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018.

HB135, sponsored by Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, proposes to limit Salt Lake City’s protection of the watershed of the seven major streams flowing into the valley to only 300 feet on each side of the stream. Current law permits protection from “ridgeline to ridgeline.” Should the bill pass, the Utah Legislature creates a disastrous effect on our critical Wasatch Front watershed. It is senseless to protect only 300 feet when the land above is left vulnerable to contamination.

This action would break a tradition of careful watershed protection wisely born by Brigham Young, just weeks after entering the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. The revered leader of the Saints built the Eagle Gate not only to define his property, but also to protect City Creek’s critical water supply. Young’s action was vital in addressing water degradation — widespread during the 19th century. Young’s concern was proven in the late 1930s, when City Creek contamination from human overuse and livestock grazing flared a typhoid fever outbreak. From 1950 to 1962, city leaders closed the canyon to restore the land and water supply. The City Creek disaster led to proactive policies to steward the watershed and to protect public health.

For decades, not only the law, but a nonpartisan, interagency culture has supported this critical canyon protection. Noel’s bill would throw that away.

More than anything, HB135 is a response to some half-dozen canyon property owners who wish to develop chunks of the Wasatch watershed. These owners and speculators are frustrated with city watershed protection that prevents them from developing their dry lots. The owners argue they have a right to develop while Salt Lake City says it will cause massive injury to the watershed. Trees and riparian zones would be impacted along with wildlife. Construction would silt the stream, endangering aquatic life (including the native Bonneville cutthroat trout). And downstream pollution would certainly increase treatment costs. Current treatment is lower cost due to the high-quality raw water run-off ensured by careful watershed protection. Salt Lake City water customers enjoy among the lowest rates in the country. Disturbances from construction and other activities would most certainly raise water rates to cover ramped-up treatment expenses.

Consider too, how much canyon property was originally purchased. Federal law at one time allowed old, patented mining claims to be converted to private property — free of charge. So most current property owners in the Wasatch canyons inherited or bought the land for a song. This history feeds the speculation we see for a giant cash windfall, even though owners knew water restrictions were in place when they purchased the property.

Beyond these concerns is a central question: Why should a handful of private property owners have a right to develop when the greater good is protection of life-giving resources that support all? We have many such protections. Our individual liberties are always limited in some way, or at least measured against the impact on the public. Or as Abraham Lincoln famously said: “My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.

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More important than all of this is the amazing protection and culture of stewardship developed and nurtured in the Salt Lake Valley for over 167 years. It’s a true marvel and testament to visionary leadership that a major urban area flourishes in the shadow of these mountains and continues to enjoy some of the purest water in the nation. Every mayor of Salt Lake City, including conservatives J. Bracken Lee and Jake Garn, stood strong for public health and safety, and limited private development in the Wasatch canyons. Constitutional provisions, state law and our courts have always backed this up. It is a culture, a commitment and an essential part of governing for our water quality. Preserving and protecting the Salt Lake City watershed is our sacred trust.