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Red Butte Creek: Shifting Shorelines

I grew up playing in Red Butte Creek and its neighboring waterways. I planted trees within Red Butte Garden and still find solace on the nearby Bonneville Shoreline Trail that marks the shoreline of the ancient Lake Bonneville that once covered this valley. In my short twenty-five years along Red Butte Creek, the flowing water has shaped my story. How have we shaped its story? What happens when deep time becomes human time? Our piping and diverting and quenching and emitting don’t just help society grow and develop at increasingly rapid rates, but also force the planet to change at that same pace with us—whether we want it to or not. Who is speaking on the side of deep time so this creek continues to ripple?

Red Butte Creek connects markers of time, flowing from Lake Bonneville’s ancient shoreline to the Jordan River that eventually ends in the Great Salt Lake. Climate researchers say the American Southwest faces a 99 percent risk of experiencing megadrought by as early as midcentury. According to scientists, this would place an “unprecedented stress” on already scarce water resources, and less than 1 percent of all Utah lands are riparian.

“Time” derives from Old English tı–ma, related to tı–d, or the currently used word, “tide.” The tide of water in this salty valley, its rise and fall, seems doomed to fall and keep falling. There was once a lake here. In 20, 30, 50 years, will I have to say, “There was once a creek here”?

In the new geological epoch, humans are the main drivers of change. The magnitude for the projected rise in temperatures under human-induced climate change doesn’t differ that much from the magnitude of past warming periods. However, the rate of warming varies dramatically. Under current climate projections, global temperatures are warming at a rate ten times faster than they did after the last ice age. Elizabeth Kolbert says in The Sixth Extinction, “organisms will have to migrate, or otherwise adapt, at least ten times more quickly . . . How many species overall will be capable of moving fast enough remains an open question.” We are accelerating time.

The debate about the exact beginning of the Anthropocene lingers, pointing back to the Columbian Exchange that colonized what is now North and South America, the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century, and the global radionuclide fallout of the mid-twentieth century. These events coincide with not only noticeable markers in geologic layers, but also moments of devastating human actions—from settler colonialism to the exposure of thousands of downwinders to nuclear testing in the American West to the horrific nuclear bombing in Japan. Such moments of measurable human impact on the geology of the planet also correlate with violence against our own species.

Between 1951 and 1963, the US government dropped more than 120 atomic bombs over the Nevada Test Site. Red Butte Creek flows into the Great Basin, which shook with each explosion at the nearby Nevada Test Site, shaded in a mushroom cloud. The basin felt deep pulses from 1963 until 1992 when the testing went underground. As the land tremored, so did the downwinders whose homes shook and whose relatives passed away from cancer. The Paiute, Goshute, and Shoshone people experienced the testing as the most recent iteration of colonialism. In Savage Dreams, Rebecca Solnit says about a police officer arresting a Shoshone protestor, “he, in fact, is the one who is trespassing.”

Even though the military’s activity in the region has created many catastrophes, ironically, their actions close to the Wasatch foothills may have ultimately helped protect Red Butte Canyon. Red Butte Creek provided water for the Fort Douglas Military Base that was built in 1862 along the foothills, and continued to do so until the base closed in 1991. By 1890, the waters of Red Butte Creek were owned solely by the US Army. Because the military owned rights to the water, and the majority of the land in the canyon, the lands remained relatively free of grazing and farming. Before Fort Douglas was built, the Mormon settlers used Red Butte Canyon primarily as a quarry, excavating the red sandstone beneath the gambel oaks, bigtooth maples, and cottonwoods for building materials. While the mining operation had considerable impact on the lower half of the watershed, the upper reaches remained relatively pristine. In 1969, when the Army declared Red Butte Canyon as surplus lands, the US Forest Service took over and designated the area as a Research Natural Area because it was one of the last remaining undisturbed watersheds in the Great Basin. Even though the creek is small compared to the nearby drainages, the upper reaches still exist in a more intact state than the other six canyons that quench the thirst of Salt Lake Valley.

Where I’ve been visiting Red Butte Creek, a crude oil pipeline runs along where shorebirds used to leave light tracks. The pipeline carries oil from western Colorado and eastern Utah to the Chevron refinery in west Salt Lake. The industry is relatively disguised on this wealthier, whiter end of the Salt Lake Valley. But on the west side, the Chevron refinery emits large plumes of burnt orange-brown and yellow-gray smog that places the surrounding communities—primarily lower income and people of color—at disproportionate risks of respiratory and heart issues from air pollution.