Watershed 101: Why Salt Lake City's Snow Tastes So Delicious

By Local Lexi Jun 3, 2019
That snow you've been daydreaming about all winter, yup. That's a major source of Salt Lake City's drinking water. Here's a few tips on how you can responsibly recreate in the Wasatch watershed.
Watershed 101: Why Salt Lake City's Snow Tastes So Delicious

Looming above the glittering sprawl of Salt Lake City lies the Wasatch Mountain Range, home to one of the highest quality water sources in the nation and a protected watershed area of 190 square miles.

So, what does that mean? A watershed is an area of land where snowmelt and rainfall are channeled into creeks, streams, rivers, reservoirs, and lakes. A healthy watershed conserves water, supplies drinking water and water for agriculture, promotes healthy riparian (river) corridors, wetlands, and lake habitats, enables healthy soil, and provides habitat for wildlife and plants. In the Wasatch, The Greatest Snow on Earth® is the primary source of all that water once the sun works its melty magic.

Snow FacepngIt can take less than 24 hours for a drop of water in the Wasatch to reach a faucet in Salt Lake City!

The watersheds above Salt Lake City contain some of the most scenic recreation areas around and the opportunity to get out and enjoy the mountains abounds. Because the watersheds encompass sensitive habitats and our drinking water, it’s important to educate yourself about them in order to protect them from pollutants, overuse and erosion in both the summer and winter months. 

Why protect Salt Lake City’s watershed areas? 

Over 50% of the drinking water consumed by residents of Salt Lake City comes directly from the protected watersheds. Salt Lake City is quite unique in that its population resides so close to its watershed source waters. 

In many cities and towns in the mountain west, water must travel tens or hundreds of miles through aqueducts and pipes to reach population centers. Outdoor recreation is a vital way of life along the populous Wasatch Front. 

Visitors and residents alike should understand and respect the watershed rules to safeguard both the quality of our water and minimize negative impacts to our mountain habitats. 


So where are Salt Lake City’s watershed areas located anyway?

The areas below are watersheds protected by Salt Lake City Public Utilities. 
  • City Creek Canyon
  • Emigration Canyon (above Burrs Fork)
  • Parleys Canyon
  • Dell Canyon
  • Lambs Canyon
  • Big Cottonwood Canyon
  • Little Cottonwood Canyon

That means that many of Salt Lake’s legendary backcountry skiing and snowboarding zones, as well as four ski areas (Solitude, Brighton, Snowbird, and Alta) reside within protected watersheds. The watersheds of the Wasatch harbor incredible scenery and as such attract a huge number of visitors. The impact from so many people appreciating these landscapes presents a huge threat to both the quality of our drinking water and the environment. Please observe the following rules and regulations when enjoying the outdoors in the watersheds of the Wasatch.



Resist the hugely tempting urge to swim, wade, dip your toes, or splash around in watershed lakes, rivers, and streams. It can be tempting to cool off your toes after a long hike, but touching the water negatively impacts public health. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen sweaty, mostly naked teenagers gleefully jumping into the waters of Cecret Lake, at Alta). Don’t do it, this is our drinking water! When crossing streams, try to use rocks or logs and avoid placing your shoes in the water if possible. Note that fishing waders are required in all lakes and streams.


Protect our delicious water by using restrooms. Backcountry users without access to toilets or outhouses must bury their solid waste at least six feet deep and over 200 feet from any water source or trail. Please do not relieve yourself near a lake or stream. It may be tempting to enjoy the view, but first consider our tap water and the sensitive organisms that call this ecosystem home! 


Camping is permitted in campgrounds and backcountry camping is allowed on Forest Service property in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons (unless otherwise posted). Backcountry campers must camp at least ½ mile from any road and over 200 feet from any water source or trail. Backcountry camping is not permitted in City Creek, Emigration, Parley’s Canyon, Lambs and Dell Canyons. See our post about family camping for more tips.


With so many people visiting the Wasatch watershed areas, practice Leave No Trace principles when heading for the hills. If you pack it in, pack it out; never leave trash in or around the watershed and never pick wildflowers or remove plants. Please resist the urge to roll around in the beautiful flowers for the perfect Instagram pic. These are critical food sources for pollinators and ruining a bed of wildflowers for one picture isn’t kind to the visitors who arrive after you. Cutting switchbacks in trails and trampling sensitive alpine vegetation greatly contributes to erosion and can add sediment to the water near riverbanks and shorelines.



Utah is often plagued by drought and only you can prevent forest fires. Know that campfires are permitted in developed campgrounds with fire rings when burn bans are not in effect. Backcountry fires are permitted on Forest Service property in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons (unless posted) and must be ½ mile from any road and at least 200 feet away from any water source or trail. To minimize impact and the construction of fire rings, it is recommended to use backpacking stoves instead of campfires. Backcountry fires are not permitted in City Creek, Emigration, Parleys, Lambs, and Dell Canyons. If current conditions are dry, seasonal restrictions on fire use may be in place. Always know before you go and never use or deploy fireworks in the watershed. 


Domestic animals, including dogs, horses, and pack animals, are not permitted in protected watersheds. This is because their waste can end up directly in your drinking water. (Search & Rescue Avalanche dogs and permitted service dogs are exempt - check local regulations). Dog waste contains bacteria and parasites that can make drinking water unsafe. The cleaner the source water is when it reaches treatment facilities, the lesser potential for these harmful organisms to contaminate your drinking water. As it decays, pet waste can compromise wildlife habitat and harm the ecological health of the organisms living in mountain lakes and streams. Do it for the fishes! More on hiking with dogs here.


It can be frustrating to leave the pooch behind when you visit our beautiful watersheds, but there are plenty of places to recreate with your four-legged friend(s). For a few mountain bike trails to tackle with your pooch -- Click Here. As always, please clean up after your dog to keep the trails safe and beautiful for everyone. Please don't leave any dog doo bags behind, it creates a smelly and unsavory experience for other trail users! If your dog packed it in and pooped it out, it's YOUR responsibility to pack it out.

  • Bonneville Shoreline Trail
  • Millcreek Canyon (restrictions apply: click here
  • Emigration Canyon
  • Jordan River Parkway
  • Neffs Canyon
  • City Creek Canyon (below water treatment plant)
  • East Canyon
  • Mt. Olympus Trail
  • Ferguson Canyon Trail
  • Tanner Park 
  • Most trails in the Park City area


Off-road and cross-country travel by motorized vehicles is prohibited on trails that are not specifically designated for this use. 

Observing these few simple rules will ensure the people of Salt Lake have safe and high-quality drinking water. It doesn't take much to shred the shed, so please be respectful and cognizant of the rules. Fines are given to those found breaking watershed rules, so take the time to educate yourself, your friends, and your family to enjoy the Wasatch. Let's preserve its beauty and integrity for all.