BIG COTTONWOOD CANYON — Warm weather draws many people to Utah’s most popular canyons.
The wet, cool spring has held off the runoff, but the flow is picking up now, and high elevation streams like Big Cottonwood Creek will continue to rise until they peak around Memorial Day. That has safety experts warning people to keep their distance from streams and rivers.
"It's cold. It's swift. It's powerful,” said Unified police officer Bryan Pickle. “If you go in that water, or a child goes in that water, they're going to be taken away. If somebody goes in the water, their chances of surviving that are very low. We just want to avoid that altogether.”
Tammy Pearson, of West Jordan, was on the trails Friday with a couple of her nephews. Pearson said she knows to keep a very close eye on the youngsters because she’s had some close calls before.
"We've taken up little kids in the past. They've jumped in the water, and we had to go after them,” Pearson said.
Pickle has young kids of his own.
“You’ve got to watch them like a hawk,” he said.
Despite these warnings, just about every year somebody falls in the water and doesn't come out alive. Right now, the water temperature is in the mid-30s because it's melting snow. So even if a person survives the beating of the rapids, the chill of the water would make them hypothermic in less than 10 minutes.
The water isn’t just cold, but it’s part of Salt Lake City’s watershed, which includes four primary canyons that deliver water to nearly 500,000 people — City Creek, Parleys and Big 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.
Pickle has patrolled the canyons for eight years.
"This is a watershed area,” he said. “This is our drinking water, and we don't allow domesticated animals up here."
The officers who patrol the canyons for the Unified Police Department say they've seen an increase in people illegally bringing their dogs into the protected watersheds of Little and Big Cottonwood canyons.
"There's been an increase in people coming up to enjoy the outdoors, and with that increase in people, we see an increase in dogs up here,” Pickle said.
The first time someone is caught in the area with a dog, officers will explain the rules and let the dog owners know why it's important to protect the canyon for the water supply.
"If somebody is a second-time violator, they will for sure get a ticket,” he said.
There are plenty of signs reminding visitors that no dogs or people are allowed in the water of the lakes or streams in these canyons. For more information go the state’s watersheds, go to utahcleanwater.org/find-your-watershed.html.
Contributing: Amy Joi O'Donoghue