Beneath the Surface: Diving into Cache Water

by Fallon Rowe, photos by Nick Carpenter

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Diving into Cache water

Picture a giant mass of earth and water crashing down a hillside, destroying everything in its path. Most people imagine this happening in a mountain landscape, far from daily life. Sometimes, though, nature hits close to home. In July 2009, this scenario became a reality for a mother and her two children, who lost their lives and their home to a landslide below the Logan North Canal.

Over-irrigation and water-saturated soil have proven to be serious problems near Utah State University in the past. Tom Lachmar, geology professor and groundwater specialist at USU, explained that two separate but related landslides have occurred near campus in the last decade. The ground below campus is made of permeable sediments, and water will go “straight down” until it hits certain thicker layers that cause it to move laterally “until it finds a way to seep out on a slope,” he said.

Lachmar noted the first slide happened at the end of the irrigation season, and was a smaller movement of sediment that likely resulted from over-watering of the Quad area. This slide essentially dumped sediment and water into the canal. The second slide, however, brought tragedy.

A USU public abstract by Kathryn Davis Henderson explained that in July 2009, “a wet, steep hillside failed, leveling a home below and destroying an irrigation canal that ran along the hill. Three people were killed.” The saturated sediment and water went into the canal as with the first slide, but this time the canal broke. Lachmar said this tragic deadly slide was likely a result of a wet and rainy month of June that year, not a result of over-watering because it “happened too early in the season.”

USU is celebrating 2015 as the “Year of Water” to provide local water education and recognition of faculty expertise in water science. Numerous free public events will be held in an effort to engage the community and raise awareness of water science accomplishments. The Year of Water also uses interdisciplinary experts to “guide federal, state, local and private agencies and land-owners in research-based management to balance the needs of agriculture and our rapidly urbanizing communities,” according to the Year of Water website.

Although Utah is generally considered a desert area, Cache Valley has abundant groundwater, and Lachmar said it is “the wettest place in the state of Utah.” The amount of water existing in its aquifer system could fill a swimming pool 15 miles wide, 10 miles long and 400 feet deep. Lachmar has conducted many studies on Cache Valley water. He has examined carbon-14 data, which looks at radioactive decay of isotopes in the sample, to determine that some local groundwater is from Lake Bonneville, a giant lake that covered the valley tens of thousands of years ago.

Since the time of Lake Bonneville, Cache Valley has had a complex history with both groundwater and surface water. Prior appropriation doctrine has dictated most of the water distribution in Logan, which Lachmar explained as, “First come, first served.” Older claims are more valuable because they get the highest priority, and water rights are “commodities” that can be purchased and sold.

When the first settlers came to the valley, all surface water rights were appropriated before groundwater claims and well drilling occurred, according to Lachmar. Now, the law treats groundwater and surface water as “highly interconnected” because of the interaction as natural systems rather than as separate entities. An example of this is the surface water canal interacting with the saturated water in the ground to cause the fatal landslide.

Lachmar explained that most precipitation falls on the highest edges of Cache Valley, and then the water flows toward the center of the valley where the Bear River and other water bodies are located. He said that the Bear River is a “gaining stream. As it flows through the valley, the discharge increases because of the groundwater flowing into the stream bed.”

Pollution doesn’t affect groundwater in Cache Valley since “we have thick, lake clay sediments between the ground surface and the aquifers,” Lachmar said. The placement of the landfill and wastewater treatment facility in the middle of the valley was fortunate because the upward direction of stream flow prevents pollution buildup. “We have remarkably high quality and abundant groundwater in this valley,” he said. “It is clean, amazingly clean.”

Water in Cache Valley encompasses more than streams and what exists underground. Kelly Kopp, a landscape water conservation and turfgrass scientist at USU, said snow acts as a reservoir in Utah since it influences droughts and water supply.

Unpredictable weather, including fluctuating snow levels each year, “makes it very hard to predict what we’re going to have in terms of future supply,” Kopp said. This affects farmers and irrigation every year, especially as Cache Valley’s population is growing. Along with agriculture, Kopp said, “the vast majority of per capita water use in the state (70 percent) goes for irrigating our ornamental landscapes.”

Ed Kosmicki of Utah Stories, a Utah news website, says Utah is the second driest state and “the second largest consumer of water per person in the nation (295 gallons per person per day), with about two-thirds of water in private homes being used on lawns and landscapes. Forty percent of that water is wasted, according to Utah State University. Leaks and over-watering account for most of the waste.”

The combination of periodic droughts, rising prices and growing population has convinced Kopp that conservation is extremely important, describing it as a “virtual reservoir.” Kopp encourages students to take action with conservation, and promotes the idea that “if we each save a little, we all save a lot.”

USU students and faculty can conserve water by taking simple steps to reduce usage. In an Environment Magazine article, Benjamin D. Inskeep and Shahzeen Z. Attari encourage upgrading to high-efficiency appliances, especially toilets, to make the biggest impact. Small efforts in daily life are also effective, including minimizing run time of faucets and showers, choosing shorter washing cycles for clothes and improving sprinkler system programming, the article states.

On a larger scale, new technologies, such as climate-based irrigation control, are continuing to improve efficiency and help conservation, Kopp said. This could affect USU students pursuing agricultural careers because technology and methods are progressing. Other issues, such as over-irrigation and pollution, are highly related as nutrients and excess water can leach through the soil or runoff into surface water bodies.

Looking to Cache Valley’s water roots, there is diverse history and science. According to the Year of Water website, USU has a “100+ year legacy of undergraduate and graduate programs that have trained the leading voices for water issues around the world.” The Year of Water will help the community transition toward a wise and successful future. After all, Kopp says “water is life.”

 

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