By Emerson Andrews, Sustainability Resource Center
Whether you notice it or not, Red Butte Creek runs through campus every day; bubbling and gurgling for all of us to see before it goes underground toward Liberty Park. Unfortunately, in the few miles it flows above ground, Red Butte Creek faces multiple challenges ranging from streamside maintenance to stormwater pollution.
Because of the many challenges facing Red Butte Creek, a menagerie of minds have come together to draft a comprehensive management plan. As part of the larger effort to restore and better manage Red Butte Creek, Robin Rothfeder, a doctoral student in the City & Metropolitan Planning Department, is taking the first steps with a Stormwater Quality Assessment. This assessment of the creek, made possible by a $12,180 grant from the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund (SCIF), will determine just what sort of shape the stream is in.
The proposed assessment will test water samples for the concentration of five different contaminants. These samples will be collected from four different locations on campus. The contaminants include: nitrogen, phosphorous, metals (including zinc, copper, and chromium), total dissolved solids, synthetic organic contaminants (pesticides and herbicides), and total recoverable petroleum (oil and grease). A deep understanding of these pollutants will help identify their potential sources and provide a mechanism to evaluate whether a management strategy is working, according to the proposal.
How do these pollutants find their way into Red Butte Creek? In a natural system, rainwater and snowmelt permeate the soil and slowly infiltrate back into the larger water system. However, because campus is full of impervious surfaces such as roads, sidewalks, etc. that meander from building to parking lot and back again, rainwater and snowmelt amass and run directly into the stream—collecting all of the chemicals and particles in their paths. This altered runoff, combined with larger events like the 2010 oil spill, have left a great natural resource in not so great of shape.
The pollutants are just one problem for a creek that has seen better days, Rothfeder told the SCIF Allocation Committee. A lack of site maintenance has enabled trash, ranging from plastic bags to piles of junk, to build up along the streambeds. Additionally, because of the large amounts of impervious runoff, the Red Butte channel cuts deeper and deeper all the while eroding and expanding as it washes into the valley. However, people like Rothfeder have a vision for the stream that would fully utilize Red Butte Creek as an outdoor laboratory for the U campus and serve as a showcase for the institution’s sustainability efforts.
“Red Butte Creek can be one of the campus’s crown jewels: an iconic symbol of the University’s commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship, a tool for teaching and learning, an internationally recognized exemplar of best management practices, and a uniquely important contributor to sense of place in the natural landscape,” Rothfeder says.
With the help of SCIF, Rothfeder will be able to collect the detailed baseline data that will be the first step in the larger Red Butte Creek project. These first steps are crucial to realizing a Red Butte Creek where students, faculty, and guests alike can enjoy the serenity of an urban stream while finding inspiration in the natural beauty that surrounds them.
In order to realize where you can go, you must first realize where you are, and this project is about learning how polluted Red Butte Creek is so that the restoration process can begin.