October 10, 2016

Our Disappearing Ribbon of Nature

Our Disappearing Ribbon of Nature Our Disappearing Ribbon of Nature Our Disappearing Ribbon of Nature Our Disappearing Ribbon of Nature
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By The West View

By Ray Wheeler

Humanity’s relationship with “nature”– the web of non-human life forms with which we coexist and are interdependent – has always been paradoxical. For much of our history we have worshiped nature even as we have also destroyed it.

In our mountainous Salt Lake Valley, since the arrival of Mormon pioneers a century and a half ago, we have largely obliterated native plant communities and eliminated many species of wildlife. All seven streams flowing from the Wasatch Mountains to the Jordan River have been submerged into an underground network of pipes. Today one of the last remaining spaces available for native communities of animals and plants in our valley is the ribbon of green along the winding path of the Jordan River.

Since Mormon pioneer days, the human perception of our valley’s only river has reflected our paradoxical relationship with nature. For the first settlers the river was a vital lifeline, providing water for drinking and cleaning, for power, for transport and for agriculture.

But when the same river flooded farms, homes or towns, presented a barrier to travel, bred mosquitoes or otherwise obstructed the spread of civilization, we naturally regarded it as a nuisance or a threat. Many saw it merely as a conveyor belt to nowhere, a convenient repository for every kind of human waste.

The original, pre-settlement river was slow and sinuous, with a flood plain up to a half-mile wide in places. Its low, gently sloped banks, regularly topped by floodwater, were lined not with trees but with coyote willow, shrubs, bulrushes and grass. It had large systems of marshy wetland ponds within its flood plain, especially on Salt Lake City’s west side as the river approached its mouth in the Great Salt Lake.

The river provided water, food and shelter for deer, elk, cougar, wolves, coyotes, foxes, and many other animals including at least 200 species of locally breeding birds, and hundreds of thousands of migratory birds traveling along two overlapping transcontinental migratory bird flyways that follow the north-south path of the river. A 2002 study by Utah Partners in Flight confirms that riparian corridors are the most important bird habitat in the state.

By 1883 the industrious Mormon settlers had built an approximately 170-mile network of canals to distribute the flow of a 50-mile long river across much of a 500-square-mile valley floor. By mid 20th century most of the land along the river, outside of cities, was farmland. At this time, Valley residents still fished and swam safely in the river.

However like all urban rivers across the world, with the development of our modern industrial infrastructure the river gradually became a staging area and dumping ground for every conceivable form of urban-industrial waste: smoke-belching power plants, pollution-seeping factories, raw human sewage (until the first sewer plants were finally built on the river in the 1950s), trash dumps, junkyards, offal from meat-packing plants, industrial chemical wastes, fertilizers and other pollutants flushed off city streets and landscapes, and eventually, refuse from the ever-present homeless people who camp up and down the river.

In addition to our valley’s vast canal system, we built out a still larger storm sewer system to drain storm water from virtually every street in the valley. This “storm water” drains into the river, essentially serving as both garbage collector and sewer main for the entire valley.

In 1910, flood control engineers built a diversion dam at 2100 South to redirect floodwater into a “surplus canal” away from the original river channel, which passes within 1.7 miles of Temple Square and the heart of downtown Salt Lake City. Despite this heroic flood control measure, Salt Lake County flood control crews still continuously dredge the original channel to control flood risk from sediment, which they pile up in riverbank levees or berms.

The river has also been straightened, shortening its length and speeding its flow. To prevent erosion on the outside of river bends, its now steep banks have been hardened with “rip rap” rock walls, car bodies, concrete blocks and other debris, to ensure that homes and commercial centers can be built right to water’s edge with minimal flood risk or flood insurance cost.

As industrial blight and pollution increased during the second half of the 20th century, some communities and residents along the river turned away from it. It developed a notoriously bad reputation. In the 1970s its water was tested and declared unsafe in places for drinking or swimming. Many parents warned their children not to go near it. Its water was muddy and dangerous to human health. It stank. Its banks were stripped almost completely of native plants, which were gradually replaced with weedy non-native plants of little value to wildlife. In some places, its wetlands and marshes were buried under trash and fill. Its channel was dredged, bermed, straightened, its banks raised, steepened and fortified. A 1971 report titled “Jordan River Parkway, an Alternative” done by Urban Technology Assoc. noted that when kids fell into the river they sometimes drowned because the banks were too steep to climb. Gradually it sank below its rising banks until it all but disappeared from the public consciousness. Many homeowners with back yards bordering the river turned away from it, building fences that block it from view and shuttering the windows facing the river.

However, beginning in the 1950s a positive change in public consciousness also began to take hold. After nearly a century of ever-intensifying abuse, city, county and state governments began the epic job of recovering the river from its status as a waste dump and sewage canal with the construction of water treatment plants along the river beginning in the 1950s. Thanks to major environmental protection laws enacted in the 1960s and 1970s, especially the Clean Water Act and National Environmental Protection Act, the Jordan river corridor is today a somewhat cleaner river, though the water is still quite polluted and mostly unsafe for swimming, let alone drinking.

During the latter part of the 20th century valley residents and city planners began to see the recreational value of the river corridor. The fast-growing cities and counties along the river’s path began to build parks along its banks. Golf courses and sports parks were constructed along the river. Duck hunting reserves and wildlife preserves proliferated across the vast wetlands at its mouth.

As part of a “Model Cities” program, during the 1960s and 1970s, urban planners conceived the ambitious idea of a “Provo Jordan River Parkway” bike and pedestrian trail running up to 150 miles along the path of the Provo River through Provo Canyon and across the city of Provo to Utah Lake, then up its eastern shoreline and continuing northward along the entire length of the Jordan River.

With the construction next year of a recently-funded $6 million bike and pedestrian bridge spanning the railroad yard between North Temple and 200 South, the Jordan River Parkway trail will be continuous all the way from Utah Lake almost to the shoreline of the Great Salt Lake, providing an extremely efficient and safe north-south bike commuting pathway across the Salt Lake Valley.

These visionary efforts to improve the river corridor eventually led real estate developers to a revelation. Because of flood risk, pollution and their unsavory reputation the river bottoms had remained undeveloped farmland, mostly zoned agricultural and priced at bottom dollar for a major urban area. But if water pollution could be reduced – if the river could be made not to smell – then residential subdivisions, office parks and strip malls might be built within its previously undeveloped flood plain, and developers could pull off one buy-low, rezone-and-sell-high subdivision and commercial center bonanza after another. Hopefully flood risk was now so well contained as to be minimal. And if flooding did occur, there would always be FEMA and the nation’s heroic taxpayers to bail out the new commercial or residential property owners.

In 1996 one of Utah’s largest construction firms succeeded in forcing South Jordan City to discard a plan to develop a park system along the river and instead to rezone the farmland it had bought for commercial use – a story well told by Utahan Paul Swenson in a meticulously accurate, true-to-life novel, Slapped. Overnight the developer realized a $17 million profit just from the rezone, and immediately flipped the property to another developer without building a single structure on the site.

The deal sent an electric thrill up the spine of the real estate development industry. Since 1996, nearly two dozen massive “mixed use” (commercial/dense residential) or “transit-oriented development centers” (TOD’s) surrounding light rail stations along the I-15/Frontrunner transit corridor have been constructed, are in progress, or planned for the river corridor. Most of these “mixed use”centers, jammed full of apartment and condo blocks as well as strip malls and towering office buildings, spill down into the river flood plain almost to the river’s edge. They range from 50 acres up to 700 acres in size. The largest of them are whole new cities within cities. For example, according to the an EPA report, the just-completed “Bingham Junction” TOD on the former Sharon Steel mill Superfund site in Midvale will house an estimated 7,000 residents, not including those shopping and working on the site, and will contain approximately 300 new buildings.

We have radically altered our idyllic mountain valley. In the mobile, high-tech world of the 21st century, American lifestyle is changing, even in Utah. Especially in University towns like ours, the educated young professionals who staff and manage industry-leading, market-dominating technology companies tend to be backcountry skiers, river runners, mountain, racing and touring bikers, climbers, and backpackers. They prefer “natural open space” (a formal zoning designation in our city) for outdoor recreation. As its once abundant riparian habitat has been gobbled up by commercial, residential and industrial development, city dwellers have begun to understand both the lifestyle amenities and the economic value of preserving that narrow ribbon of brown water and green foliage that threads its way across the west side of our city.