Salt Lake City Valley: Where does the water come from?

The Great Salt Lake of Utah, c. 1874. Thomas Moran, American (L.Prang & Co., Library of Congress, Washington DC)

Recognizing that most people don’t know where their water comes from when they turn on the faucet, two professors from the University of Utah, Craig Denton, professor of communication, and Peter Goss, professor emeritus of architecture, have spent the last five years working on a way to explain that to the residents of Northern Utah. They worked with Jeff Niermeyer, director of the Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities, who helped them map the distribution system. The project’s website Hidden Water is online now.

Hidden Water unveils surface water systems on the east side of Salt Lake Valley, both culinary and irrigation. The web site follows the seven major streams of the Wasatch Front, plus minor ones, and tracks that water from headwaters to the Jordan River and then Great Salt Lake. It intermixes contemporary photographs with historical photographs from several archives showing earlier uses and diversions of water. The web site documents how stakeholders utilize the water with treatment plants, hydropower plants and irrigation ditches. In turn, these public, recreational and commercial uses flow from water rights dating back to territorial days. The term “hidden water” refers to our tendency to take our water system for granted. We turn a tap and expect the water to flow. Where water comes from and how it’s delivered is “hidden” to us. Somehow, it crosses a jumble of political divisions and property lines and arrives at our taps. The intention of this Hidden Water web site is to make that system visible and transparent.


Surface flow supplies 60% of the water we consume in Salt Lake City. It’s a finite supply and it’s precious. Moreover, climate change will put a strain on that supply.

And Hidden Waters is intended to be a starting point:

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.