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Water in the Desert: Knowledge Rules

Inside a remnant snow slide in Silver Fork, Big Cottonwood Creek.

April 5, 2012 – Turn the tap and water is there—reliable, clean and seemingly abundant.  But most users of this vital resource in Salt Lake City don’t know where it comes from.  The source of water—and the course it follows to reach the faucets—is hidden.

That’s the theme of Hidden Water, a new photo documentary that looks at surface water systems on the east side of the Salt Lake Valley, both culinary and irrigation.  The documentary takes two forms:  a web site and a future exhibit.  The web site is the first offering, and it is now online at or

Five years in the making, Hidden Water is a collaboration between University of Utah faculty members Craig Denton, professor of communication, and Peter Goss, professor emeritus of architecture, and Marriott Library Digital Services.  Denton and Goss brought different perspectives to the project, the former his eye for landscape photography and the latter his vision of how water and architecture interact.  With support from a University Research Committee grant, Marriott Library Digital Services developed an interface using Google Earth professional software that broadens the audience.

“The website is easy to use for scholars as well as elementary students and teachers,” says Denton. “Instead of using the traditional model that relies on the researcher’s knowledge of how to parse databases for information, the interface enables K-12 students and casual users to intuitively explore the drainages and follow the water through conveyances down to and across the Salt Lake Valley floor.”

According to Denton, knowledge of water systems in the semiarid climate of northern Utah is vital. Surface flow supplies 60 percent of the water consumed in the Salt Lake Valley. The land collects moisture that falls from the sky, and over geologic time, that water has carved the canyons in the nearby mountains.  After multiple uses, the water that is left flows into the Jordan River and the Great Salt Lake—an inland sea.

Because it is a closed system, residents who rely on that water must live within the cyclical and geographic boundaries of the water.  The Hidden Water web site allows the public to see that water and know where it comes from.  The designers’ aim for the project is that when the system is no longer hidden, users will begin to better appreciate, conserve and protect it.

The project follows the seven major streams gathering in headwaters drainages in canyons of the Wasatch Front and tracks them as gravity pulls the water, eventually into the Jordan River and then the Great Salt Lake.  Intermixing 300 contemporary, color photographs of high mountain lakes, reservoirs and streams with more than 50 historical, black-and-white photographs from Utah State Archives showing earlier uses and diversions of water, the documentary tracks how the water is harnessed via a variety of networks developed over time.  Irrigation ditches, head gates, water treatment and hydropower plants all tap into and subdivide that surface water based on the territorial doctrine of “first in time, first in right.”

Denton and Goss worked with Jeff Niermeyer, director of the Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities.  Niermeyer sketched an overview of the labyrinthine system that diverts water from the canyons and identified important nodes in the distribution system.

The web site is word-searchable.  It provides GPS coordinates so that future researchers can measure watershed change via site new photographs over time.  It offers a Creative Commons license so that teachers can download images and print them for instructional use.