The Jordan River’s Journey to the Great Salt Lake

by | Feb 18, 2024 | Animals, General, Plants, Reflections & Celebrations, Travel

The cry of seagulls, clamor of crows, and the trill of red-winged blackbirds cradle my consciousness as I walk the expanse of the wetland.  Reflections of cattails and clouds are mirrored in the dappled ponds as I implore the flow of the Jordan River delta.

Tracking rivers has always been a love of mine.  Finding headwaters, getting familiar with the journey that rivers take through canyons, valleys, cities, lakes, and oceans is a worthy endeavor that bonds me with my environment and strengthens my sense of place.  I love native water!

Many rivers that flow from the Wasatch mountains in the Salt Lake Valley end up draining into the Jordan River such as Big and Little Cottonwood Creeks, Millcreek, Parleys, Red Butte, and many others. 

The Jordan River flows from Utah Lake to the Great Salt Lake as it winds its way through the valley including suburbs, parks, cities, golf courses, nature preserves, industry, under highways and roads, and finally into the mosaic of wetlands that eventually join the waters of the lake.

I was initially excited and grateful to hear about the water being released from Utah Lake to flow into the Great Salt Lake, adding to its shrinking volume.  This inspired me to go to the Jordan River for myself to see if any noticeable changes in water levels and flow were yet visible.  In mid February, I decided to access the river from Cottonwood Grove in Murray.  From the bank of the river, I could see that the water indeed seemed to be flowing with much more gusto than in previous months.

Seeing this subtle yet apparent surge of flow in the river gave me hope and reminded me about the power of intention.  I sent my wishes along with the water rushing along the river that the Great Salt Lake would be replenished and revived.  I was so touched by the idea of this water traveling with so many people’s well intended hopes and visions for the future, I knew I had to follow it.

The Jordan River’s route is about a 50-mile journey that flows from Utah Lake to the Great Salt Lake.  The Jordan River delta is a tapestry of twists and turns that drains into ponds, dikes, wetlands, and eventually into the Great Salt Lake.  Farmington Bay greets the Jordan River into the lake gradually (along with the many man-made dikes) with stands of cattails, clumps of rushes, and swaths of phragmites.  Water fowl, shorebirds, raptors, and songbirds depend on this delta for its many amenities such as shelter, food, breeding and nesting sites for year-round residents as well as migratory stop-overs.  The expansive view of the vast openness that stretches out from the wetland to the Great Salt Lake is always renewing and peaceful. 

However, the Jordan River’s course and history is full of beauty, bounty, mistakes, and rehabilitation.  If we reach back to the Pleistocene epoch, we would find the enormous Lake Bonneville within the Salt Lake valley (as well as much of Western Utah, parts of Idaho and Nevada) which occupied more than 20,000 square miles at its extent.  Once the lake breached the natural dam at Red Rock Pass in Idaho around 16,800 years ago, it continuously dropped off in size leaving behind the Great Salt Lake, Utah Lake, and the Jordan River.   Around 3,000 years ago a Desert Archaic culture of nomadic hunter-gatherers lived near the Jordan River at a location currently known as the Galena Soo’nkahni Preserve which can be found near the Jordan River Parkway Trail in Draper, Utah.  Additionally, Fremont people lived around the Jordan River about 1,900 years ago. Many artifacts were found at the Galena Soo’nkahni village site in the 90’s and the area has since been preserved as a historic monument in the form of a sundial while honoring the tribes of Utah.   The Jordan River was important to the Northern Shoshone and Ute for hunting, fishing, and gathering seasonal food in the Salt Lake Valley.  The Timpanogos band of Utes, Goshutes, and Paiutes occupied land that bordered the valley as well. 

The Jordan River was once a teaming river corridor that provided habitat to many native species of fish, mammals, and birds such as Bonneville Cutthroat trout, Bighorn sheep, wolves, bears, Yellow-billed cuckoos, Black terns, and many more.  The wildlife population of the Jordan River has been reduced significantly over the years due to development, industry and habitat loss.  Today, some of the most commonly spotted wildlife include Mallard ducks, Canadian geese, fox, racoon and pets, while carp are the most common fish found in the river.   Though many other animals manage to find habitat along the Jordan River, the overall ecological diversity has been severely affected.

Throughout the 1800’s pioneers settled into the Salt Lake Valley and immediately made changes to the river by using it for drinking water, irrigation for crops, and eventually as a way to move logs and granite blocks from Little Cottonwood Canyon to Temple Square to build the Salt Lake Temple.  Many dams and diversions were installed along the Jordan River as well as other rivers within the watershed.  Sewage, garbage, and runoff from farmlands regularly entered the river.   As mining began to boom in the region and smelters were in operation, heavy metals and contaminants such as lead and arsenic polluted the ground water.  From 1953 to 1964 a uranium mill was built near the Jordan River and the confluence of Millcreek which operated and stored uranium.  Much of the contaminated soil was removed in the late 80’s, however contaminated shallow ground water is still present and the area is discouraged from being excavated.

The damage that has been done to the Jordan River is extensive, expensive and could take generations to fully recover.  However, much work has been done to restore the river throughout the 2000’s by the Jordan River Commission and others such as the Jordan River Channel Repair Project at Winchester Street as well as many other projects. The improved natural areas of the Jordan River Parkway Trail are serving to increase lush habitat for wildlife as well as recreational opportunities for people.  Communities are showing more interest in protecting the Jordan River corridor, though continued diligence and policies involving best practices near waterways will remain necessary to ensure the health and resilience of the riparian ecology.