Weber River’s future is murky
July 8, 2006
Echo Creek may be small, but the diminutive stream is polluting the Weber River system with truckloads of residue.
"It contributes hundreds of tons of sediment into the Weber each year," said Doug Garfield, technician planner for the Utah Association of Conservation Districts (UACD). "Echo Creek is identified as an impaired stream that turns the Weber River into mud."
Overgrazing and ignorance by private landowners have, over the years, turned many water systems in Summit and Wasatch Counties, from Park City to Kamas to Coalville, into pollution producers.
Garfield, who also teaches science at North Summit Middle School, has been working summers for the UACD for over 10 years. His first project was with Chalk Creek, above Coalville. The waterway has one of the highest populations of the endangered Bonneville Cutthroat trout in Utah, according to Garfield. The creek had similar sediment problems to Echo and has almost been restored. Fertilizer from farms seeped into the river causing a rise in phosphorous, which created more algae. As a result it created algae blooms that suffocated and depleted the water of oxygen, harming aquatic life.
Garfield was part of a grass roots operation that repaired the area by installing fencing around streambeds to keep out livestock. They built structures and planted vegetation to stabilize the banks.
"We were successful in reducing sediment and we got a lot of the river back. The Chalk is healing," Garfield said, who fished the river as a kid.
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He wants to implement similar strategic plans that helped turn Echo Creek into a flourishing, clean waterway. Other plans are also in the works, such as cleaning Silver Creek of metallic pollution left over from the mining days in Park City.
Right now, however, Echo is the focus. The reason?
"Echo Creek sends more sediment to the Weber River than any other stream," said Brendan Waterman, the new upper Weber River watershed coordinator for the Kamas Valley Soil Conservation District.
"The Weber supplies culinary water to a lot of Weber and Davis county residents," He said. "It’s so significant, that the Weber Water Conservation District built a series of sediment basins to take it out before it comes to the treatment plant."
It’s not just health problems that are involved with the sediment pollution. The process of filtering out sediment hurts everybody’s wallet.
"The taxpayers spend $125,000 a year that is directly involved with removing sediment from Echo Creek," Garfield said.
When the pioneers first traveled through Echo Canyon, the valley was filled with a stream meandering through a marshy canyon floor.
"Now it’s just a big dirty ditch," Garfield said.
Times have changed since the pioneer days. Besides overgrazing, I-80 and the railroad have altered the original path of the waterway. The stream is pinned between the freeway and the railroad and has nowhere to flood, so, it erodes deeper into its own riverbed gorge.
"The water tables have been removed, it’s being down-cut and it can’t flood it’s natural way. It’s not as productive as it used to be," Waterman said.
According to Garfield, the big sign that said, "things need to be changed" was in 1983, the year of many floods in Utah. The state sprayed to kill noxious weeds. As a result, the spray, combined with poor grazing practices, eliminated all the willows and killed the vegetation along streambeds that held the banks intact. The winter had a huge snow pack and when it melted, all the mud came with it.
On a smaller scale, the same thing happens every year at Echo Creek and the surrounding tributaries. UACD’s first target is Rees Creek, Echo’s largest sediment contributor. Rees Creek primarily runs through private land owned by the Ensign Ranch. As it is with most cases, UACD would be helpless without the private landowners’ assistance.
"Without cooperation from landowners, it wouldn’t happen. It’s critical, it’s essential," Waterman said.
The Ensign Ranch, according to Garfield, is the perfect landowner for water quality.
"The Ensign Ranch has excellent managers," Garfield said. "They rotate grazing, move the cows from pasture to pasture so it doesn’t overgraze the banks. They keep it sustainable and have an environmental ethic. They are able to produce cattle and the wildlife is growing and they make money by taking people on hunting trips as well. They have better plant diversity and better water quality. It’s a win-win situation."
Many of the problems don’t occur on just one owner’s large ranch however.
"There are a lot of hobby farmers and ranchers that have small properties who don’t think that what there doing is hurting," Garfield said. "It (the pollution) is a byproduct of many small things that is hurting the water quality. A lot of problems result in many small areas. It’s not going to get easier to fix these problems."
Beaver dams used to dot the Echo creek and its tributaries. On Rees Creek the UACD is in the process of building a series of dams, similar to those made by a beaver. The dams that have been built have taken out over 90 percent of the sediment in that stretch, according to Garfield. The dams work as a filter and raise the water table back up to where it should be.
Where the dams have been installed, green foliage, willows and grasses have grown. Waterfowl and other wildlife have returned.
"This used to be a dustbowl," Garfield said, pointing to a marsh created by a dam, on Thursday. "If you restore it, they will come.
"Hopefully, along with management proactives, Rees Creek will cease to be a thorn in our side," Garfield said.
There are various momentary incentives for landowners to alter their practices to inhibit water pollution and negative soil erosion. Different grants may pay almost all of the costs associated with various projects.
"It behooves us to clean up and diminish the pollution," Garfield said. "If worked right, you can get a vast majority funded through project. People want clean water, which they should. You got to have it."
According to Garfield, individuals can also help by insisting on controlled and proper development, implement proper grazing management, properly manage manure and nutrients, stop indiscriminate weed spraying near streams, not dumping household waste or chemicals down storm drains, and making leaders aware of the importance of clean water. For further information, contact the Natural Resource Conservation Service at 435-336-5853.