Flow to slow in ‘Poison Creek’
Empire Creek, part of the waterway known as Poison Creek, no longer will flow all year in Park City beginning in the spring.
For years, water from the Judge Tunnel, a historic mining tunnel, has been discharged into Empire Creek, which is not a naturally occurring year-round waterway. Historical flows in the creek have been the result of storms and snowmelt, as well as sporadic overflows from the tunnel.
Now, under an agreement with the Utah Division of Water Quality, Park City will begin diverting Judge water to the 3Kings Water Treatment Plant to remove heavy metal concentrations. The Judge water will be used by the municipality for indoor drinking water and outdoor irrigation.
And Empire Creek, a tributary of Silver Creek, will return to its natural ephemeral state.
Clint McAffee, Park City utilities director, said that when Empire Creek was still a seasonal waterway, there were years when it would dry up at times.
“As a result of us treating that water at 3Kings, the creek will go back to what it was before Judge was spilling into it,” he said.
At the direction of the Park City Council, staffers are working to inform the community about the upcoming change. A staff report says residents enjoy and have grown accustomed to having a year-round creek.
However, the options to keep Empire Creek flowing would require years and tens of millions of dollars to implement, according to the report.
“The water that would have to be dedicated to creek flow is currently dedicated to the City’s drinking water supply and would be very difficult to replace, especially in drought years,” the report says.
Empire Creek runs in Empire Canyon before converging with Silver Creek near the intersection of Heber Avenue and Deer Valley Drive. Silver Creek originates in the lower Deer Valley ponds and follows the Poison Creek Trail and Rail Trail until it converges with the Weber River near Wanship.
Judge Tunnel is a historic mine tunnel located in Empire Canyon near the bottom of Walker and Webster Gulch and its portal is adjacent to Empire Creek. When the Tunnel was excavated in the early 1900s, a local aquifer was intercepted and subsequently became one of Park City’s first drinking water sources, according to a municipal staff report.
Park City stopped diverting Judge Tunnel for drinking water in 2013 because of the elevated metal concentrations and began discharging into Empire Creek year-round. The agreement with the Division of Water Quality requires all Judge Tunnel water to be diverted to the 3Kings plant no later than 2024.
3Kings, which is on track to open next year, also will treat Spiro Tunnel water.
Also in 2023, Park City will begin augmenting the flow to the Silver Maple Claims Wetlands by adding from other sources the equivalent amount of water that entered there from sporadic Judge Tunnel overflows prior to 2013.
Dalton Gackle, Park City Museum’s research, digital services and social media coordinator, said runoff and pollution from mines led to the Poison Creek nickname.
There are oral histories from people who say the water was gray, almost like a silver, “and you would get pretty dirty just by sticking your hand in the water,” he said.
In addition, some people who lived on upper Main Street and parts of Daly Avenue had their outhouses sitting on top of the creek and there was a lot of human waste in the water, Gackle said.
“It was a place that parents told their children to avoid,” he said.
“Treasure Mountain Home: Park City Revisited,” a 1993 book by George A. Thompson and Fraser Buck, describes how early mills and smelters sent clouds of noxious yellow smoke over the mining town and their tailings poisoned streams.
“Women in Ontario Canyon complained that when they hung their washing out the smoke would eat holes in the cloth,” the book says. “Even the glass windows in many homes were etched by the corrosive fumes. Annie Gibson, one of the town’s early settlers, used to recall when she could catch a fine mess of trout from the sparkling little stream behind Main Street called Silver Creek. After the mills were built the creek was fouled and there were no more fish. Today that little creek where Annie Gibson caught fish is called Poison Creek.”
City Hall and festival organizers over the years have crafted parking and transportation blueprints, but reports to the police are commonplace during Sundance.
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