Rediscovering Emigration Creek: Lost Urban Waters Brought Back to Life

By Brian Tonetti

As a skier, water is the most essential ingredient. Skiing is a water sport. Without the precious “Greatest Snow on Earth,” I would not be able to participate in my life’s passions and our outdoor industry, amounting to millions of dollars of state revenue, would suffer. As a New York-transplant, I followed in the footsteps of many before chasing the snow west. Upon arriving, I found endless powder fields, glorious peaks, and sublime canyons. I wanted more.

The urge, this time, took on a different form, knowledge. As I looked down, at my feet, at the mountains beyond, and those drainages further, I wanted investigate exactly what happened to the water as it melted. Upon further investigation I followed many of these creeks, quite literally, underground. The others, I followed all the way to the Jordan River, a green vein splitting the grey of the Salt Lake Valley in half. In my search to learn more, I ended up at the Jordan River Commission, a local organization dedicated to restoring and preserving the Jordan River corridor and all its amenities, including wildlife, recreation, water quality, and many others. This led to a job and love of urban waters. Through schooling, I was introduced to the idea of daylighting and the seven main tributaries of the Jordan River. Culminating in the founding of an organization dedicated to daylighting and rehabilitating these urban waters, the Seven Canyons Trust.

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Daylighting is the uncovering of buried, underground creeks, streams, and rivers, bring them to the surface and restoring these waters to the most natural state possible. From Berkeley, California to Zurich, Switzerland, communities are uncovering their hidden waters, making the invisible visible. Turning grey to green, daylighting can take neglected and degraded urban properties and turn them into an ecological paradise, improving water quality and providing habitat for wildlife, as well as promoting economic development and living laborites for nature-starved urban families and children.

When Brigham Young and Company, first set eyes on the Salt Lake Valley, in the mouth of Emigration Canyon, and uttered the words, “This is the right place.” He saw seven green veins extending through the valley, colliding with the slice of green that connected the fresh water lake to the great saltwater lake. Once pioneers, they became settlers, tapping and taming the creeks to facilitate settlement in an upland-desert ecosystem. Before any certifications and permits were required, or even necessary, this irrigation work revolutionized practices throughout the country.

If Brigham Young looked over the valley today, he would hardly recognize what he saw. Yes, the skyscrapers, planes, cars, or cranes would all surprise him, if he could even see through the smog on a brisk winter’s day. However, beyond all this, he would fail to see the core of the landscape, the waters that ran through it, the sustainers of life. He would fail to see those seven green ribbons streaming down the valley.

According to my calculations over 21 miles of creek lay buried throughout the Salt Lake Valley. About five of these creek miles can be attributed to Emigration Creek. Bursting from Emigration Canyon, the creek flows into Hogle Zoo where it spills into an underground culvert just before the Giraffes. To the nearby White Rhino’s dismay, the creeks pops back to the surface and flows on into the Bonneville Golf Course. Collecting golf balls and golfer’s frustration, the creek winds through the course creating an interesting water feature and critical riparian habitat. From there it winds through neighborhoods into Wasatch Hollow, a restoration site of Salt Lake City Parks & Public Lands. The Blaine Natural Area is next to receive the waters of Emigration Creek, a small natural oasis jammed between homes and Blaine Avenue. Flowing on, the creek runs to Westminster. Flowing through campus, the creek provides students with a living laboratory, a mediation oasis, or a site of procrastination and relaxation. Just outside of campus, the creek again follows into an underground culvert to take over mile trek to Liberty Park, mixing with the waters of Red Butte Creek to form Liberty Pond. A haven to migratory birds and waterfowl, as well as the picnicing family, Liberty Pond provides key wetland-like habitat, a rarity in the highly-management urban environment. From there both Red Butte Creek and Emigration Creek begin an over two mile trip down 1300 South underground, following commuters as they rush to work, home, or play. Mixing with an underground Parley’s Creek at State Street, these three creeks finally flow into the Jordan River at 900 West. The current site of an auto emissions shop to the south and a foreclosed home to the north.

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The story is not done there. Three Creeks Park, the underground confluence of Red Butte, Emigration, and Parley’s Creeks, and the Jordan River, was first envisioned as the capstone project in 100 Years of Daylighting. In partnership with the Jordan River Commission and Salt Lake City, the Seven Canyons Trust is working to daylight this historic confluence, marking the first time residents here would see water since the 1983 floods and, beyond that, at the turn of the 20th century when these creeks were buried.

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This project would improve water quality by slowing down stormwater and allowing it to infiltrate into the ground. This project would begin to alleviate key environmental justice issues where lower-income west-side communities are forced to deal with pollutants and degraded water quality from higher-income east-side communities. This project would provide a key connection for nearby community anchor institution, Sorenson Unity and Multi-Cultural Center, to the 45-mile Jordan River Parkway and 200 miles of connected trailways from Roy to Provo beyond. This project would create a living laboratory for the Center and other educational institutions, creating the next scientist and stewards. Finally, this project would work to undue past mistakes and mark the first steps towards the healing and repairing of the hydrology of the Salt Lake Valley.

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Learn more about the Seven Canyons Trust, its mission, and its projects here. To stay up-to-date on our work, subscribe to the Daylighting Quarterly, our seasonal newsletter, or follow us on FacebookInstagram, or Twitter.

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