Future legislation could protect the green around Utah’s rivers

Oct 13, 2023, 12:00 PM

The Virgin River flows through through Zion National Park....

The Virgin River flows through through Zion National Park. (Ravell Call/Deseret News)

(Ravell Call/Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Economy, community and environment. Those are three elements at the core of a discussion surrounding riparian zones, the lush, green areas around Utah’s rivers.

And these areas are a lot more important than we think. According to Salt Lake County Watershed Planning and Restoration, riparian areas represent less than 1% of Utah land. But while you may have never heard the word riparian before, these areas are the most important and heavily used wildlife habitat in Utah.

“Our drinking water comes from these watersheds, and the trees along them, and other vegetation, really help keep that water clean,” said Jennifer Follstad Shah, an environmental professor at the University of Utah.

Riparian zones also help to absorb water, like the snowpack. Shah said it then releases the water more slowly over time, which is good for Utah’s water supply. These zones keep the water cleaner as well.

“Another big reason is a lot of people love wildlife, like bird-watching. I mean riparian areas are incredible for that,” Shah said.

Wildlife use these zones for habitat and migration corridors. Riparian areas also protect people from certain risks, like flood hazards.

“If you build really close to, or in a riparian zone, then there’s a good chance that you might suffer property damage as a result,” Shah said.

Thus comes the importance of protecting these areas

Legislation to protect riparian zones

Simon Sorensen, executive director of the Jordan Rivers Commission, said Cottonwood Heights Rep. Gay Lynn Bennion was told during a Utah Water Task Force meeting to investigate riparian zones and bring back a proposal. 

“So she asked myself and a couple others to help identify people who were knowledgeable and have expertise in riparian corridors, and we put together some recommendations for a group of about 20 to 25,” Sorensen said.

Both Shah and Sorensen have been working closely with Bennion to draft future legislation to protect these areas. That legislation will be discussed in next year’s legislative session.

Ultimately, these environmentalists want Utahns to care. To pay attention to something that may seem boring, but is actually quite important.

“People do love these areas,” Shah said. “I think everybody has been in a riparian area and has valued it, but didn’t really understand what it is and what kinds of benefits it provides.”

Related: Great Salt Lake trust offers millions for wetland protection

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Future legislation could protect the green around Utah’s rivers