SALT LAKE CITY — The clean water running from the Wasatch Mountains into our taps may seem natural and effortless, but public officials know the ability not to think about where our water comes from is a privilege — one that requires ongoing stewardship.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, the Utah Department of Public Utilities, and local businesses and departments announced a reboot of the Keep It Pure watershed awareness and protection campaign on Monday. The effort aims to educate the public on the importance of protecting the local watershed areas that supply Salt Lake City's approximately 360,000 residents with clean water.
The city receives nearly 60% of its water supply from these upper-mountain watershed areas. City Creek, Emigration, Parleys, Big Cottonwood and Little Cottonwood canyons all produce extremely pure water that flows from mountaintop to tap in less than 24 hours.
"Providing high-quality, safe drinking water to growing communities in the Salt Lake Valley when we are the second-driest state in the nation is no easy task," Mendenhall said at a news conference kicking off the effort. "We're tremendously fortunate to have an amazing source of high-quality, pure water in our nearby mountain watersheds that we've taken care of for more than a century."
Salt Lake City is uniquely situated downstream from a bountiful watershed that experiences regular snow melt. The water that runs down from it is extremely clean and requires minimal treatment to comply with city and natural health standards. This keeps the city safe and healthy, while drastically lowering utility bills for residents.
"A water treatment plant to deal with additional water issues and refinement would cost $100 million easily, and the utilities costs would be even higher," said Laura Briefer, director of Salt Lake City's Department of Public Utilities. "A new water supplier would be extremely expensive, as there aren't many others near us. We're really lucky that this is so close, which is why we need to be good stewards of it."
The Keep It Pure initiative aims to educate those who come onto the trails near the Wasatch canyons, whether they're familiar with the trails or entirely new to them. With 15 million visitors to the canyons last year and more recreators flocking to natural spaces during the pandemic, the measure is both reactive and preventative.
Ben Chisholm arrived in Utah three years ago and fell in love with the mountains he saw out the window of his plane. He regularly runs and bikes along Mill Creek Canyon, and skis the slopes up Little Cottonwood Canyon in the winter. To him, stewardship is about keeping a beautiful place beautiful.
"It's your human responsibility to take care of the environment," Chisholm said. "People will just use the bathroom on the side of the trail or leave bags of dog poop. I'm trying to make sure not to leave any waste and just be a responsible steward."
"Kip's Tips" (inspired by Kip, the pika mascot of the initiative) instruct visitors to stay out of the water, stay on the trail, and leave the dogs and animals at home. In response to sanitation issues along the trail, the Department of Public Utilities also emphasizes that visitors use the appointed bathrooms on the trail, which are regularly sanitized in accordance with CDC recommendations.
Through following these steps, the campaign aims to create stewards of the watershed and maintain the flow of clean water to the Salt Lake Valley.
"Our watersheds are defining features of this area," Bekee Hotze, district ranger of the U.S. Forest Service, said. "And they help define who we are."