By Cecily Sakrison, communications specialist, The Water Center at the University of Utah
From Mason Kreidler’s campus office you can see Mount Olympus wedging its way into the sky. The mountain view calls to mind the six canyons in his Salt Lake watershed study area—deep clefts that cut through the Wasatch, each with a tumbling creek running through its bottom. The lakes and streams within those peaks provide nearly 60 percent of drinking water to approximately 350,000 of the Salt Lake Valley’s residents.
Kreidler is part of a research partnership investigating how climate stresses will impact the 190 square miles of Wasatch canyons watershed and its ability to provide safe water to the city in its shadow. He’s working on a doctorate in civil engineering under the guidance of professor Steve Burian and is one of several University of Utah Water Center researchers engaged in a recently signed five-year study contract with Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities.
The study agreement represents the formalization of decades of collaboration. “We have been working on many aspects of climate vulnerability in our water supply planning, watershed management planning, stormwater planning and integrated watershed planning. However, this is the first time we are incorporating all of these together in a more comprehensive, iterative process,” said Laura Briefer, director of Salt Lake Public Utilities.
The study, which began in January, pulls together an interdisciplinary team to investigate both the supply and demand sides of the water system. Court Strong, professor of Atmospheric Sciences, is leading the collaboration and brings expertise in climate projections. Paul Brooks, professor of Geology & Geophysics, is working to gather and process historical and newly collected hydrologic data. Burian’s knowledge of integrated urban water modeling has served as a foundation of the city’s research collaboration with the university for nearly 10 years.
Currently, Kreidler is working on updating a model of the Wasatch watershed. On his screen, a network of icons represents key points in the system—streams, canals, reservoirs, treatment plants. He double clicks to reveal a historical model of Big Cottonwood streamflow—the data points graph a craggy peak and deep valley pattern reminiscent of the landscape itself. This is the back end of a user interface that city officials will use to process “what-if” scenarios.
While drought is the most commonly discussed climate impact in our region, the Salt Lake area is also vulnerable to flooding, persistent algal blooms, catastrophic fire risks, the proliferation of certain pathogens and the limitations of the energy system’s capacity to move and treat water. Kreidler’s investigation looks not just at the influence of these threats, but also the impact of various solutions.
“We want to anticipate how people will respond to these scenarios,” said Kreidler. New pipelines, restrictions on use, and prior appropriation water rights all carry outcomes of their own. “Getting valuable results is challenging, but worth it. We’re don’t want to give false security but useful information that [the city] can act on.”
The gains of the partnership are many and mutual.
“Students benefit from the research, practical learning and will be prepared for a range of professions,” said Briefer. “The city benefits by improving the understanding of our community, training the next generation to work with us, and applying their knowledge for the benefit of the Salt Lake community.”
Watershed Stories is a series exploring water work across the University of Utah campus. The stories are curated by the U Water Center, the Sustainability Office and the Global Change & Sustainability Center.