Watershed 101

Photo overlooking Red Pine and White Pine lakes by Carly Lansche.

What is a watershed and who takes care of it? 

A watershed is defined as the drainages and geographic containers, like mountains and canyons, that capture and drain water. Here along the Wasatch Front, we are fortunate to have pure mountain water within close proximity to provide Salt Lake City, Cottonwood Heights, Millcreek, Holladay, as well as parts of South Salt Lake, Murray, and unincorporated Salt Lake County with clean drinking water.  

Salt Lake City Public Utilities manages the 190 square miles of watershed in the Central Wasatch. According to SLC Public Utilities, approximately 31,528 acres of the watershed have been purchased since 1989 to protect the water quality and affordability for residents. Public Utilities was tasked with watershed management through the creation of ordinances directed by two Federal Acts of Congress. To read more about these Acts, consider checking out this document.

While Salt Lake City manages the watershed, it’s up to YOU to help Keep It Pure.

While freshwater flows from our mountains all year long, it needs to be supplemented with water from wells found in the Salt Lake Valley during dry summer months. Surface water from canyon creeks, including Little and Big Cottonwood Canyons, Parley’s, and Provo Canyons are treated by the Metropolitan Water District of Salt Lake and Sandy at several facilities throughout the Salt Lake Valley. Luckily for us, gravity transmission makes piping water downstream to these facilities much more affordable and less energy-intensive.  

Our close proximity to our watershed is unique, many states in the Western United States have to pipe their water for miles before delivery, while here in the Salt Lake Valley, it only takes approximately 24 hours for the water to be processed before entering our faucets.  


To help protect our watershed, Salt Lake City has developed a few rules: 

  • Backcountry camping should be at least 200 feet from any water sources and trails on Forest Service property in the Canyons.
  • Leave No Trace: If you pack it in, be sure to pack it out. Unless you are able to find a trash container.  
  • Human Waste: If you’ve got to go, and you can’t find a restroom, be sure to be at least 200 feet away from a water source, and bury your waste at least 6” deep. Otherwise, using “wag bags,” or bags to help you pack your own waste are a great option to help maintain a clean, healthy environment for everyone. You can find wag bags at the Lone Peak Trailhead thanks to the generous support of The Gear Room and the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance.  
  • Dogs, with some exceptions– such as service animals, or pets belonging to canyon residents, are not allowed in watershed protected areas unless they are permitted by the Salt Lake County Health Department.  

According to Salt Lake County Watershed Planning and Restoration, dogs are prohibited in  Salt Lake County watersheds, including: 

  • Bell Canyon Creek and tributaries 
  • Big Cottonwood Canyon 
  • Big Willow Creek and tributaries 
  • City Creek Canyon (northeast of the treatment plant) 
  • Deaf Smith Canyon Creek and tributaries 
  • Emigration Canyon (above Burrs Fork) 
  • Lambs Canyon 
  • Little Cottonwood Canyon (including the town of Alta) 
  • Little Willow Creek and tributaries 
  • Mountain Dell Canyon 
  • Parley’s Canyon 
  • South Fork of Dry Creek 

Find more information about dog permits here.

  • Help prevent forest fires. Fire can pose a serious threat to a watershed. The soil beneath an area that has burned can become less absorbent, which increases stormwater runoff and the possibility of mudslides.  Additionally, runoff following a fire can contain overwhelming amounts of ash and sediment and anything else that can be pushed downstream. This can become costly to treat. When water treatment facilities are overwhelmed with sediment it can slow the time it takes to deliver purified water to faucets. 

Campfires are allowed in the Central Wasatch within developed campgrounds unless otherwise noted. Backcountry campfires are allowed on Forest Service land within Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons at least ½ mile away from any road. Backcountry fires must also be 200 feet away from water sources. Backpacking stoves are recommended over campfires when in the backcountry.

Fires are not allowed in City Creek, Emigration, Parleys, Lambs and Dell Canyons outside of campgrounds. Seasonal restrictions on fires may be in place due to air quality issues or high fire danger. 

  • Swimming, wading and motorized boating are not allowed in watershed areas. However, fishing waders are permissible! That being said, be sure they aren’t transporting any unwanted species by cleaning and drying them regularly, and avoiding waders with felt bottomed boots.  
  • Motorized travel is only allowed on designated roadways. Pollutants from cars run off the road and into our streams, if they aren’t naturally filtered and caught through absorption into the ground, so you can try to reduce your impact on the watershed by riding the UTA Ski bus and carpooling up the canyons as much as possible. Check out our blog on the RIDE App and the UTA Ski Bus for more information about these mobility options!  

Read more about watershed rules here.  


What happens if you’re caught breaking these rules?

If you are caught breaking the rules outlined above, you are subject to being charged with a Class B misdemeanor by the Unified Police Department. First-time offenders will be charged a $650 fine from the court. If someone is caught violating these rules again, the offender will receive a Class A misdemeanor, which means worse penalties and can even mean spending up to a year in jail. 

You can read more about these penalties here.


How is the CWC helping our watershed? 

By helping guide the transportation decision making in our canyons, the CWC aims to protect our watershed by reducing single-occupant vehicles in the tri-canyons area to mitigate the pollution entering the waterways. Additionally, the CWC is developing an Environmental Dashboard that would monitor water quality and provide a holistic feedback system 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *