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Jordan River Restoration Project

The Jordan River Restoration Project

By Ray Wheeler,  Founder, Earth Restoration Network;  Director, Jordan River Restoration Project

A primary mission objective of the Earth Restoration Project is to conduct empirical field testing of theory in pilot restoration projects at a variety of scales from back yard, to community, to local, regional, national, continental, and global.

In that spirit, for the past two years I have been participating as a citizen representative  and political activist in a masterplan development initiative for the 55-mile long Jordan River  in Salt Lake Valley, which happens to flow through my back yard.

Following is a description of this ecoregional asset, its current status and its potential for transformation into what could potentially be the largest urban riparian restoration project in America.

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Utah's  Wasatch Front metropolitan area has three phenomenal natural assets:  the Wasatch Mountains, the Great Salt Lake, and the Jordan River.    The mountains and lake are peripheral to the urban areas, requiring at least a short drive to approach and explore.  But the Jordan River runs smack through the middle of 15 major municipalities including my home town of Salt Lake City, Utah’s capital and largest city.  With a recently completed bike and water trail running nearly its entire length, the Jordan River corridor is by far the city’s most important recreational asset—a lovely chain of parks, natural areas, nature and wildlife preserves.

On its 55 mile journey across Salt Lake Valley from freshwater Utah Lake to terminal, saline Great Salt Lake, Utah’s Jordan River drains a large freshwater lake into a shallow, saline, “terminal” desert sea--the Great Salt Lake.

The Jordan River rises in the shadow of the 7,500 foot- high, 12-mile long façade of Mount Timpanogos as the northern outlet of Utah Lake.    It winds slowly across open farmland, slides past monster trophy homes in the midst of the Turkey Run golf course resort, and then sinks into Jordan Narrows, where it pools behind a hydroelectric dam that pushes much of its water into a matrix of irrigation canals.  Below the dam it rushes between willow-choked islands, cascading from beaver pond to beaver pond, and then spills out into open farm land, flowing swiftly between tree-lined banks.

After wandering amidst farms, housing developments, golf courses and factories;  after winding patiently across the vast suburbs in the south and central portions of Salt Lake City Valley, the Jordan approaches downtown Salt lake City with exceptional stealth.  It glides silently through my neighborhood--the quiet, slightly shabby and forlorn west side of Salt Lake--in a luxuriant tunnel of cottonwood, willow, box elder and elm.  Finally it bursts out into brilliant sunshine at the edge of the vast water-world surrounding its extensive delta on the southeast corner of the Great Salt Lake.

Situated strategically between two large lakes both bordered on the east by extensive freshwater wetlands, the Jordan River corridor serves as a critical connecting link for migratory birds traveling between Canada and Mexico on both the Central and the Pacific flyways.   For millennia its streamside wetlands and vast delta have provided abundant food and shelter for tens of thousands of migrating birds each spring and fall.  The first explorers to this region, including mountain men Jim Bridger and Kit Carson and the Mormon pioneers themselves, were awestruck by the fertility of these wetlands teeming with waterfowl, shorebirds, song birds, raptors, fish, beaver, deer, elk, coyote, antelope, bear, cougar and countless other species of wildlife.

Sadly, since the Mormon pioneers entered Salt Lake Valley in 1847, human impacts to this incredibly fertile river corridor have steadily multiplied, first gradually, then swiftly, until today,  the scale of the cumulative loss has become tragic.

West of the Wasatch Range, which is mostly protected within National Forest and wilderness areas, the remainder of the Jordan River’s 800 square mile watershed has undergone radical surgery.  Native grassland and riparian ecosystems have been all but obliterated by parking lots, buildings, roads and golf courses.   Even within the Jordan River Parkway, vegetation is relentlessly mowed to the ground, allowing non-native, weedy, thorny plants better adapted to harsh conditions to flourish while native species critical to indigenous wildlife die off.   Where peach tree willow and hawthorn and narrow leaf cottonwood once thrived, forbidden forests of tamarisk and Russian olive now crowd the stream banks.   River banks once graced with cottonwoods are now choked with tamarisk or walled with Siberian elm.   Where native grasses, shrubs and wildflowers flourished, we have snakeweed, morning glory, crab grass --and dirt.  In the few areas where native plant restoration is now being attempted, the entire ecosystem has been so comprehensively, so radically altered that restoration can be extremely labor intensive.

Valley-wide grassland and soil disturbance by agriculture--then housing and industry--has accelerated erosion, muddying the river’s water and burdening it with a heavy load of sediment.  Deposition immediately below the confluence of each major tributary has created sediment choke-points, causing concerns about flooding.  The solution?  Salt Lake County flood control crews intensively dredge the channel floor, straighten the channel and build up stream bank dikes.  Trapped between straight high banks, unable to expend its kinetic energy in wide meanders as all rivers normally do, the river saws its channel ever more deeply into the land, aided by continuous dredging activity.  Over the past fifty years it has become deeply entrenched below its floodplain, its banks now so steep and high that they continually collapse into the water, in turn causing still more sediment loading, and requiring still more dredging.   No longer watered and fertilized by springtime floods, bordering wetlands within or adjacent to the flood plain have dried up and have become dumping grounds for trash or backfilled by residential or commercial development.

Over a century of intensive urban development the tributary steams have been captured, in some cases buried, and redirected into a vast maze of irrigation canals.   At the southern border of Salt Lake City a diversion dam siphons off three-quarters of the river’s water into a “surplus” canal, all but dewatering the Jordan just as it enters the city.  An equally vast maze of storm sewer lines discharges a continual heavy load of sediment—and an almost inconceivable torrent of trash-- from across the entire valley, directly into the river.   The iconic image of our city’s only river is similar to that of New Orleans after Katrina—a picture of monumental shipwrecked garbage objects—refrigerators, televisions, telephone booths, bank safes, car and truck tires and wheels, engine blocks, transmissions, queen-sized mattresses, 330 shopping carts in six years within a 10 mile stretch of river in Salt Lake City alone—and a torrent of floating trash in quantities easily as large as those of any third-world barrio.

The river is dying of thirst, and along with it, its entire riparian ecosystem is rapidly growing more sterile.

Like most urban rivers across the world, the Jordan River is heavily polluted both by industrial waste and human sewage.   Throughout much of its length it is identified as an “impaired waterway” due to known concentrations of fecal coloform and other key indicators of pollution.  Just one lifetime ago local kids swam and dove in the Jordan River, and several lifetimes before that it was drinkable.  Today its water is thick with sediment and algae.  Parents fear for their children to touch let alone play or swim in the water.

At the rate we are going, the last remaining unprotected open and natural areas along the river corridor will be gobbled up by housing, commercial, recreational and industrial development in a few years.    Already eagerly approved and funded by our city and county governments:  a huge new sewer plant bordering the river corridor in South Jordan, and a massive new "Sports Complex"  featuring 2 new roads,6 baseball fields, 18 soccer fields, parking for several thousand cars, and a soccer stadium large enough to seat 7,500 people--all to be built at taxpayer expense within the river's flood plain, sprawled across 160 acres of public lands purchased with federal Land and Water Conservation Fund money specifically for the purpose of flood control.   The entire site was under water for two years during the last flood event and will be under water again during the next 50-year flood, at which point taxpayers will be asked yet again to dig deep to bail out a heavily subsidized commercial soccer competition facility.

And these are but two of no less than 15 huge commercial development projects targeted for the Jordan River Floodplain in a recent river corridor development masterplan called "Blueprint Jordan River."

Absent a comprehensive plan for ecosystem preservation and restoration--and absent a major public campaign to transform the consciousness of our political leadership--the ongoing development blitzkrieg on the Jordan River corridor will continue unabated until every acre of land has been covered with pavement, town houses, parking lots shopping malls or factories.

Is this inevitable?   Probably.  Should we accept it as inevitable?  HELL NO!

The Jordan River Restoration Project is a collaborative venture of concerned citizens of Salt Lake Valley who share a very different vision for the future of our valley’s crown jewel.

Our vision is much bigger than simply to preserve isolated, postage-stamp-sized tracts of land not already targeted for development—the table scraps and leftovers from urbanization and industrialization.   Rather, our vision calls for the permanent preservation of ALL remaining parcels of undeveloped land along the river corridor, to whatever degree that may be possible.   It calls for recognition that the entire river corridor from beginning to end is one coherent ecological as well as geographic entity.   It proposes that restoration of natural systems is far and away the highest and best use of the river corridor as a whole.

We can and should have swing sets, picnic areas, skate parks, soccer and baseball fields, landscaped parks and gentrified, citified, commercialized pedestrian shopping malls precisely where they are most needed:  embedded within and therefore conveniently close to EVERY neighborhood throughout the valley--NOT concentrated within the only riparian zone the city will ever have, and NOT swallowing up wetlands that constitute a critical link in a chain of life running across the continent from Canada to Mexico.

We call not merely for preservation but for restoration.  We ask not merely for casual, partial, fragmentary restoration, but for comprehensive ecosystem-wide restoration.   We envision water so clean that native fish can thrive; water clean enough to swim in, and one day, even to drink.

In place of parking lots and industrial complexes, we envision wetlands teeming with waterfowl, amphibians, and mammals.   Instead of row houses and shopping malls, our vision is for vast flocks of ducks and geese rippling across the heart of our city on their transcontinental journeys.  Instead of an arrow-straight canal choked with trash, we envision an abundant, healthy, meandering river of life.

Just as the great work of the twentieth century was to strip-mine the natural resources of this planet in order to build up industry and civilization, the great work of the twenty-first century will be to ensure the survival of life on earth, and incidentally, of human civilization, by restoring the Earth’s life support systems at a planetary scale.

The great journey begins with a single first step.  For me that first step of the journey must begin in my own back yard, within the ecoystem that surrounds my own home and within which I live my day to day life.

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