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Hidden Water: A Survey of Salt Lake Valley Surface Water

We turn on our taps and it's there. It's reliable, clean and seemingly abundant. Most Salt Lakers, though, don't know where it comes from. The source of our water and the course it follows to reach our faucets is hidden. Prof. Craig Denton and the Marriott Library trace the sources of the water through a sophisticated and searchable web project that shows the flow from the tops of the mountains to your water glass. Learn more at Date: Mar 20, 2012

The Theme of Hidden Water

The photo documentary looks at surface water systems on the east side of Salt Lake Valley, both culinary and irrigation. It 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 Great Salt Lake. Intermixing 300 contemporary, color photographs of high mountain lakes, reservoirs and streams with over 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 mazes 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".

The documentary takes two forms: a web site and an exhibit. The web site is the first offering and it's now online at or

Five years in the making, Hidden Water is a collaboration between Craig Denton, Professor of Communication, Peter Goss, Professor Emeritus of Architecture + Planning, 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. 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.

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

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

Surface flow supplies 60% of the water we consume in Salt Lake Valley. Ultimately, it's a closed system. The land collects moisture that falls from the sky, via evaporation and transpiration, and over geologic deep time, that water has carved
our canyons. After multiple uses, what's left flows into the Jordan River and our inland sea. That closed system reminds us that we must live within the cyclical and geographic boundaries of our water. The Hidden Water web site allows the public to see that water and know where it comes from. Hopefully, when it's no longer hidden, we will begin to better appreciate, conserve and protect it.


Last Updated: 6/1/21