In celebration of Drinking Water Week, The Water Center reached out to U collaborator and Director of Salt Lake’s Department of Public Utilities Laura Briefer to learn more about our local water systems.
The Wasatch Front’s water operations typically run so smoothly that most residents enjoy the privilege of not having to think about them. However, as resource pressures mount, it benefits us all to learn a little more about what it takes to deliver fresh water to our homes. So, with the goal of becoming more “water wise,” Laura fills us in on where the valley gets its water, how safe that water is and, most importantly, how residents can play their part in ensuring the system continues to deliver pure, healthy water to the valley’s taps.
Where does the Wasatch Front get its drinking water? How does this compare with the sources of water for other communities in the West?
On average, 90% percent of Salt Lake City’s water supply comes from our local Wasatch Mountain snowpack. About 10% of our water supply also comes from groundwater. Other water suppliers along the Wasatch Front also get drinking water from the Wasatch Mountains and groundwater, although the proportion of surface water and groundwater varies by water system. The Wasatch Front water supply mix is similar to other communities in the west in terms of reliance on snowpack mountain runoff, as well as groundwater.
One thing that is relatively unique to Salt Lake City’s supply is the close proximity of the source waters to the water consumer. It takes less than 24 hours for a drop of water at the top of the Wasatch Mountains to reach a faucet in Salt Lake City – the sources of drinking water are within a few miles of the water service area. Some sources of water in other western states must travel hundreds of miles through aqueducts and other infrastructure to get to the large population centers.
How does the water get to my tap in the University’s Law Building?
Surface water from the Provo River, Little Cottonwood Canyon, Big Cottonwood Canyon, and Parleys Canyon is treated at one of several water treatment plants operated by Salt Lake City and the Metropolitan Water District of Salt Lake and Sandy and then conveyed mostly by gravity transmission and distribution pipelines to the U. During summer months, groundwater wells also tap into the water transmission system to supplement the surface water sources. There are likely a series of private water mains operated by the University that traverse the entire U campus.
How safe is our area’s water?
The quality of our drinking water is very good due to more than a century of protection of our local mountain watersheds in the Wasatch Mountains. Residents can refer to our consumer confidence reports (slcgov.com/drinkingwater) for great information regarding the sources of our water supply and the steps we take to protect it.
What offices are involved in supplying/maintaining drinking water?
Salt Lake City is a Public Water Supplier and is responsible for supplying and maintaining drinking water to Salt Lake City residents, as well as most of the residents along the east bench of Salt Lake County. We purchase some water from Metropolitan Water District of Salt Lake and Sandy, which treats and conveys water from Little Cottonwood Canyon and Deer Creek Reservoir (in the Provo Canyon watershed) through a large aqueduct that connects with Salt Lake City’s infrastructure. As a Public Water Supplier, Salt Lake City must comply with the federal and state Safe Drinking Water Acts and is regulated by the US EPA, Utah Department of Environmental Quality, and Salt Lake County Health Department. Salt Lake City also holds and maintains all of the water rights associated with its water supplies, and works under the framework of the State Engineer which is part of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, Division of Water Rights. Finally, Salt Lake City must maintain all of its water infrastructure, which is paid for by our customers through water rates (we are not a taxing entity). So in essence, our ratepayers are also very much involved in supplying and maintain drinking water.
What are some of the challenges in maintaining safe drinking water systems in the Salt Lake valley? What is your office doing to address these?
Aging infrastructure is a constant challenge. Salt Lake City has a robust capital improvement program to replace and repair aging infrastructure, and so far our ratepayers have been willing to pay increased rates to support that program.
What threats exist to drinking water along the Wasatch Front?
The primary threats to drinking water are pollution and drought/climate change. Salt Lake City is very active in controlling its source water areas to avoid pollution. Generations ago, Salt Lake City leaders planned for prolonged drought by diversifying its water sources, including the ability to access water stored in Deer Creek reservoir. Salt Lake City is also active in assessing vulnerabilities of climate change to water supplies and taking steps to adapt.
Can you tell me more about your recent partnership between SLC Public Utilities and the U?
We have entered into a five-year contract to address climate impacts to our water systems.
How do you anticipate population growth and climate change affect drinking water in our region?
Population growth may increase water demand, while climate change alters the hydrologic cycle, affecting when water is available and how much water is available, as well as possibly increasing water demand because of longer growing seasons and hotter temperatures. This is one of the areas of study that a recently signed research partnership with the U will be addressing with us.
What do you want the public to know about their water supply?
I would like the public to be aware of where their water comes from, and how it gets to their faucet. Sometimes people don’t think very much about that because the infrastructure is pretty much out of sight and out of mind. I would also like the public to know that their water supply is reliable and affordable because we work very hard to steward our water resources and water infrastructure on their behalf.
Are there programs that allow citizens to engage with their water supply?
Yes. Salt Lake City has a Keep it Pure program (keepitpure.com) that allows citizens to help protect the Wasatch Mountain watersheds from pollution whenever they visit these mountains. We also participate in a Water Check program with Utah State University that allows citizens to request a free check of the outdoor irrigation systems with recommendations on how to improve water efficiency. Salt Lake City has a water conservation program and a great website to help people choose appropriate water-wise plants for the landscape (slcgardenwise.com). We have a rain barrel program where citizens can purchase rain barrels at cost. Our website slcgov.com/utilities has additional program information.
This year’s theme for Drinking Water Week is “Protect the Source.” What can people do to protect their drinking water?
People can participate in our Keep it Pure program every time they visit the Wasatch Mountain watersheds, including following the special rules and regulations that help keep our water clean. They can also use water conservation practices such as fixing irrigation inefficiencies, installing low flow appliances, and choosing drought-tolerant plants for outdoor landscapes.