A River Runs Through It

Photographs by Dave Titensor

Beneath the Surface – A River Runs Through It
University of Utah Magazine, Fall 2021
By Amy Choate-Nielsen

“Unearthing streams breathes life back into local communities.”


The journey of a single drop of water falling from the sky onto the Wasatch Mountains is predetermined. After it careens toward the granite rocks and pine trees below, it will head west to the Jordan River, and then to the Great Salt Lake—but the path isn’t easy.


In the beginning, water flowing from the peaks surrounding this desert city will find itself divided into seven canyons etching horizontal lines across the valley to the river in the distance. From a bird’s-eye view looking north to south, the creeks flow through City, Red Butte, Emigration, Parleys, Mill, Big Cottonwood, and Little Cottonwood canyons like organized veins, pumping life from the east to the west—except where they are buried, hidden from view. There, you see parking lots, houses, and pavement.


After the water leaves its beautiful canyon, it quickly dives underground, flowing through pipes and culverts. It does not see the light of day.


And that’s where Brian Tonetti BS’14 comes in. As the executive director of the Seven Canyons Trust, Tonetti is making it his life’s work to unearth those streams, one inch at a time. His vision started at the U, where he joined 20 classmates in an Urban Ecology capstone class in the Department of City and Metropolitan Planning and sought to create a plan to daylight the valley’s seven creeks. In that course, Tonetti and his peers identified one key place to begin: the three creeks confluence. This is where the Red Butte, Emigration, and Parleys streams combine and join the Jordan River.


It’s where Tonetti is standing now, with his commuter bike leaning against a construction fence. As he looks up 1300 South, the road under which the water flows, he can see all the way to the canyons where these creeks began. He’s come a long way, but he still has far to go.


“My whole career has been working toward this,” Tonetti says, watching a muskrat dive into the water that used to be covered with concrete. “You can bring people here and say, looking at this site, it is possible. Looking around, you can see the impact students can have. This site is a case study in optimism.”

Daylighting Streams

The Three Creeks Confluence Park marks a milestone in Salt Lake City’s history. It is the second daylighting project to be completed here. The first was completed in 1995, when Stephen Goldsmith, who taught Tonetti’s capstone class, and landscape architect Jan Striefel MS’85 worked with the city to bring a half-mile of City Creek out of its culvert, up to the surface. The city removed a parking lot to create a park around the now-exposed waterway, just west of Memory Grove, where the sound of birds percolate through the air and wildlife has returned.

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About the Author:

Amy Choate-Nielsen is associate editor of Utah Magazine.

Webmaster’s Note: While this article is not about what might more typically be what one would expect under “Climate Change,” it does nonetheless discuss an important issue of human access to the natural environment of which flowing water is a key component. The article is not about contributions to climate change nor things people can do to mitigate the situation. It is about the way that people can realize what is literally beneath their feet, bring it to the surface and enjoy the benefits.