The watershed underneath the Wasatch Mountains

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SNOWBIRD — The snow has been piling up in Utah's mountains over the past few weeks, keeping the skiers and snowboarders happy — but it is also great for the watershed.

There is a whole underground aquifer in Little Cottonwood Canyon that plays a big part in our drinking water. To explain how it works, we need to go back to the mining days.

"This tunnel we're in (the Wasatch drain tunnel) was built in 1910. We did improvements to it in '85, '86 to change it from an abandoned mine to this water source," said Keith Hanson, general manager for Salt Lake County Service Area No. 3.

Hanson's service area is responsible for "providing drinking water and wastewater services to Snowbird ski resort, according to the organization's website.

There are miles of tunnels under Big and Little Cottonwood canyons, and the water flows naturally through them. At Snowbird, a plug was put in to collect some of the water. From there it goes through the pipes, through water filtration, to be used for drinking water and in snowmaking for the resort.

Hanson said man-made snow is "denser than the regular fluffy Utah powder, and it tends to stay in the watershed longer."

"So, essentially we're sort of recycling the water back through (the drain tunnel) because we're going to put it back up on the mountain as snow, and then it will melt later than the regular snow — because it's denser — and then it will percolate through the rocks and come back into our tunnels," he said.

That happens through the fractures, fissures and faults in the sedimentary rocks of the Wasatch Mountains. The plug at Snowbird holds back 35 million gallons of water at 330 feet deep.

Minerals need to be filtered out of the water used for drinking in Alta and Snowbird.

"The treatment plant takes the water from behind the plug and through a process we call ‘pressurized oxidation filtration.' We remove 99.999 percent of the contaminants," Hanson said.

The water that doesn't go through that process is used for snowmaking in early winter and released into Little Cottonwood Creek in late spring through summer. From there, it's on to Salt Lake City's water treatment facility so it can be used for drinking water in the Salt Lake Valley.



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Jodie Saeland


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