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The City Journals

Stream Daylighting brings waterways above ground for all to enjoy

Apr 05, 2021 12:13PM ● By Bill Hardesty

Mill Creek, one of seven creeks in the valley, floats by Fitts Park giving a natural feel in an urban setting. (Bill Hardesty/City Journals)

By Bill Hardesty | [email protected]

Seven Canyons Trust says that “it starts with water.” They are a nonprofit (sevencanyonstrust.org) working to uncover and restore the buried and impaired creeks in the Salt Lake Valley. Many creeks and waterways in the valley are hidden, channeled and piped underneath the urban environment and can’t be seen, heard or enjoyed. That’s where Stream Daylighting comes in. 

“Stream Daylighting is the process of exposing buried water systems,” Brian Tonetti, executive director of Seven Canyons Trust, said.

For centuries, the seven creeks in the valley—City Creek, Red Butte Creek, Emigration Creek, Parleys Creek, Mill Creek, Big Cottonwood Creek, and Little Cottonwood Creek—that flow out of the seven Wasatch Mountain canyons were used to provide clean water. Development occurred around the creeks, but also seasonal flooding happened. In the early 1900s, Salt Lake Valley creeks were buried or rechanneled into straight paths with steep cement sides to prevent flooding.

“We made the water go where we wanted it to go,” Tonetti said. “The result is out of sight, out of mind.”

Tonetti argues we need to reconnect with water.

100 Years of Daylighting

In 2014, students from the University of Utah working with Professor Stephen Goldsmith developed a 100 Years of Daylighting plan. The 100-year plan is to uncover and restore the buried and impaired creeks that flow from the Wasatch to the Jordan River. The plan calls for 21 miles of open waterways and 87 miles of unimpaired creeks.

“Waterways need to be viewed as an amenity,” Tonetti said.

The plan isn’t suggesting turning back the clock but instead creates ways to bring out the benefits of open waterways.

Tonetti explained that open waterways improve water and air quality, provide recreational opportunities and provide potential development.

The water cycle allows water to filter toxins, nourish life, and cool surrounding areas. Buried water doesn’t have a chance to do so.

Many people find the sound of moving water relaxing, and it improves mental health.

Mill Creek

Mill Creek, which travels through the cities of Millcreek and South Salt Lake, is principally above ground. It is one of the healthiest and most popular creeks in the valley. Most of its underground diversions are done to allows roads to pass over the water.

Much of Mill Creek’s path is through private property and neighborhoods, often residents building fences and walls separating themselves from the creek. However, one place residents of SSL can enjoy Mill Creek is at Fitts Park.

The creek runs along the south side of the park. Ducks travel in the meandering water. The new bridge connecting the new part of Fitts Park with the older part is above where the northern tributary rejoins Mill Creek.

The Seven Canyons Trust created a mobile app of Mill Creek (Millcreek.MyJordanRiver.org). It allows users to discover exciting stops along the path from the mouth of Millcreek Canyon to the Mill Creek confluence. It even shows the Millcreek trail being developed in SSL. Currently, the trail starts at the Millcreek TRAX station and runs west along 3300 South to the Jordan River.

The creek was restored with natural banks. This provides a more natural look and feel. It is also a safety design.

Safety design

Open water and children are not always a safe combination. It isn’t unreasonable to think that opening waterways increase the danger.

“While there is an inherent danger, it is important to use safe design,” Tonetti said.

He cited the example of a steep cement bank, which makes it exceedingly difficult to climb out of the water, as an unsafe design. The alternative is natural sloping banks that are easier to climb should someone fall in. 

Mill Creek confluence

The Mill Creek confluence is where the creek joins the Jordan River. Over the last couple of years, the Seven Canyon Trust has designated these eight acres as an opportunity area. The property is owned by Salt Lake County and is in an industrial area. 

Volunteers have removed noxious weeds and planted 2,000-3,000 desirable plants. The hope is to increase areas for wildlife like the family of red foxes seen last year. Tracy Aviary is tracking breeding birds at the site.

One of the unique parts of the confluence is that the north bank is considered a floods control levee area and is highly managed. The south bank is open for recreational development such as trails. However, now weeds and garbage abound.

Another unique part is that Central Valley Water Reclamation Facility treats and discharges 50 to 60 million gallons of treated wastewater daily into Mill Creek. Because this water is treated, it has a high phosphorus count, which helps creates algae blooms in the Jordan River. Seven Canyon Trust believes using wetlands before entering the Jordan River will naturally clean the water. 

Seven greenways 

A new initiative of Seven Canyon Trust is to develop greenway corridors along the seven creeks. A greenway corridor is a linear area along the creek used for recreational activities like walking, running and cycling.

The regional vision is to have the greenways connected, allowing people, cyclists and wildlife to move around the Salt Lake Valley. All appropriate municipalities have voiced support for the project.

The Seven Canyon Trust just completed its public survey. They collected 1,000 responses. The next step is to hold a vision workshop where the public can provide comments on the plan. The workshop may be held in June, but the date is not set. To keep informed or more information, go to sevengreenwaysvisionplan.org where you can sign up for updates.