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Canyon locals puzzled over fire and water concerns voiced by Salt Lake County Council members

Silver Lake and the town of Brighton in Big Cottonwood Canyon, Aug. 7, 2018.
Lexi Peery
Silver Lake and the town of Brighton in Big Cottonwood Canyon, Aug. 7, 2018.

Two Salt Lake County Council members are concerned about water availability to fight wildfires in the canyons along the Wasatch Front. Town leaders and utility officials said they’re surprised by the claims that there could be a problem.

Council members Richard Snelgrove and Dea Theodore spoke to legislators on the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee on Aug. 17. They discussed the high fire risk facing Utah residents, especially those in forested areas like the Little and Big Cottonwood canyons.

“It seems that numerous authorities and jurisdictions, in my opinion, have not done enough to recognize and help remediate and take preventative actions against wildfires in the future and jurisdictions,” Snelgrove told KUER after the hearing.

He and Theodore worry there isn’t enough water to fight fires up in the canyons if one were to spark.

“Their fire hydrants have inadequate water pressure or no water at all,” said Theodore during the hearing. “Many of these year-round residents live in high or extreme danger of wildfires.”

Salt Lake City can oversee areas, like the canyons, even though they’re beyond its municipal boundaries because of the vital role the watersheds play.

The Wasatch Mountains and canyon streams are important water sources for residents in Salt Lake City and the valley, according to Laura Briefer, the city’s public utilities director who also attended the interim committee hearing. She said she shares similar concerns about wildfires and the detrimental effects they could have on the city’s watershed. Though the comments from council members at the hearing surprised her.

“Salt Lake City Public Utilities, in its watershed ordinance, does allow for water to be provided via contract in those canyons,” Briefer said. “And one of the provisions of that is water for fire protection and that's for all of the existing contracts.”

In 2018, former Republican state Rep. Mike Noel introduced a bill that aimed at taking away cities’ ability to regulate and protect land where drinking water came from. It ultimately didn’t pass.

In a statement, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said they’ve been working with communities for years to protect the watershed. She distanced the county from Snelgrove and Theodore’s claims.

“Climate risk is real, and we continue to invest and pivot, when appropriate, to address fire concerns and other emergencies. Council Member Theodore and Council Member Snelgrove were acting independently with their comments to the legislative committee,” she said in a statement. “We will continue to work with them, our broader council, the legislature, and other stakeholders in our ongoing efforts to address these complicated and challenging issues.”

Town leaders in Brighton and Alta, the two incorporated municipalities up Big and Little Cottonwood canyons, said they haven’t spoken to these council members about inadequate water supply for fighting fires — because it’s not really a problem for them.

“Our municipal water system is fine for fighting fire,” said Alta Assistant Town Administrator Chris Cawley. “In the event of a large wildfire, like everywhere else, you will need a lot of help from helicopters and hand crews.”

Cawley said the town up Little Cottonwood Canyon has a community wildfire protection plan it frequently updates. Additionally, it annually works on prevention at residential properties, like removing excess fuels.

“There's more that everyone ought to do, every community in the wildland urban interface has more to do to mitigate hazard and to be prepared for an event,” he said. “But I'd like to know specifically what the council member [Snelgrove] thinks needs to be done in terms of wildfire in the canyons.”

In Big Cottonwood Canyon, Brighton Mayor Dan Knopp said he doesn’t know “what the endgame” the county council members are after. The reality is, he said the various managing agencies in the canyons are very concerned about wildfires and are working together well to prepare for them.

Theodore claimed during the legislative hearing that some residents don’t have access to water year-round, saying it’s “almost like a third world country.” Knopp said that can be a problem for some users, but that depends more on water companies in the canyon updating their infrastructure rather than availability.

“Life is hard in the mountains,” he said, quoting a German saying. “We choose to live up here and that's OK. We're good with it. The neighbors all work together — we know what we're up against.”

Legislators on the interim committee voted to consider management plans for the canyons and water availability. They included the issues in an existing bill file, which is an early draft of a bill.

Lexi is KUER's Southwest Bureau reporter
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