The Source

The Source -- an hour-long conversation with the people whose knowledge is used to manage Utah’s most precious resource.

As a way to recognize the efforts made by its water scientists and engineers, Utah State University is celebrating 2015 as the Year of Water. Tune in throughout the year as UPR’s Jennifer Pemberton and a team of reporters follow scientists into the lakes, streams, and snowfields that are the source of our drinking water, our agricultural industry, our stunning scenery, and our world-class recreation.

Support for The Source on Utah Public Radio comes from iUTAH and Utah State University's 2015 Year of Water.

Listen to Water Source Facts

The Great Salt Lake is shrinking and we only have ourselves to blame. That’s the message of a new white paper released by Utah State University last week.

The water level of the Great Salt Lake is constantly fluctuating, both seasonally and from year to year as we cycle through periods of wet and dry, but that’s all just background noise to a distinct drying up trend over the past 150 years.

Justin Prather / Utah Public Radio

The namesake to Utah’s capital city, the Great Salt Lake is really a sort of “closed sea.” But for the past few years the Great Salt Lake has really existed as two separate bodies of water, the north arm, and the south arm. They’re divided by the rock filled railroad causeway that I’m driving down, watching the sun begin to fade into the west desert.

In this final episode of The Source, a look back at 2015 -- the Year of Water. There was a lot of water news to follow from the drought to deadly flash floods in Hilldale to the toxic sludge that flowed into the state from the Gold King Mine in Colorado. There was a massive state water audit and big talks about big projects with big budgets causing big changes to how we’ll get our water in Utah.

But in the background of the daily news, there were ongoing stories -- some that stretch back thousands of years and that we won’t know the endings of for thousands more. The climate is changing, but compared to what? The Great Salt Lake is drying up compared to what it once was. We’re using beavers to engineer our streams, which is what they were always designed to do. We look back on a year of telling Utah’s water stories. Plus some updates on invasive quagga mussels, the South Logan Walmart beavers, the stream access lawsuit, and water on Mars.

Jennifer Pemberton

The Colorado River flows for over 1400 miles through four U.S. states, though it drains seven. It’s sometimes called the American Nile because nearly every drop of it is used by the civilization of the American West. Over 90% of the river is diverted and consumed by nearly 40 million people -- not all of whom live in its watershed. It’s a lifeline in a desert -- something to fight over. But when it gets squeezed through the tight canyons it has carved for itself it creates dramatic places for adventure. And it sure is pretty.

Today on The Source, three stories of the Colorado River. One about a wooden boat named for a place on the Colorado River that wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for a conservation great named Martin Litton. Also, two guys named Eric talk about Lake Powell. And finally the story of two bodies of water that kissed for the first time in a long time.

Jennifer Pemberton

A couple years ago I was home for Thanksgiving. Among the litany of things my family said they were thankful for were electricity and clean water. That’s because this particular wing of my family is employed by various utility companies. Then we started talking about who had Friday off and it turned out everyone did except the guy who worked at the wastewater treatment plant. “It’s a big day at the plant,” he said, which took everyone a little while to process. That’s when we started to call the day after Thanksgiving “Brown Friday.”

Jennifer Pemberton

A lot of people don’t know what happens to water after it gets flushed down the toilet. In Logan, it ends up in a man-made pond, where UPR’s Jennifer Pemberton went on a bird-watching field trip for this month’s episode of The Source.

They’re smuggled in dark containers and shipped across oceans. They’re transported in pods, carried on the backs of furry animals. They’re microscopic and they travel on the wind. They’re beautiful and they’re brought in intentionally. They’re dangerous and they reproduce rapidly. They’re also delicious.

Today on The Source, we’re talking about invasive species -- familiar plants and animals that are not native to Utah. We’ll learn which invasive fish the state wants you to eat, how to prevent your aquatic vessel from inadvertently transmitting disease, and get tips from a true Weed Warrior on how to combat invasive plants. But first, Ross Chambless learns a valuable lesson about the scourge of northern Utah’s wetlands -- phragmites -- and why you should never feed it after midnight.


UPR’s Jennifer Pemberton has been focused on invasive species for this month’s episode of The Source. Today, she brings us this story about the creative minds behind this summer’s most memorable public service announcement.

USU Digital Exhibits, accessed September 25, 2015,

A lot of people who move to Logan, Utah, from out of state have this moment when they think a water main must have ruptured because there’s a lot of water gushing down the street. Nope. That’s just ditch water and many people have to figure out how to get water from the that ditch to their lawn or vegetable garden and there are no instructions for this.

This episode of The Source is all about irrigation -- the kind that farmers do and the kind that residents of Logan have to do with a system that was designed by the very first settlers to the valley. We’ll talk about what’s changed, what hasn’t and what needs to when it comes to watering your lawn or tomatoes.

USU's NR Days Teaches Children About Water Quality

Sep 23, 2015
Christopher Campbell

Last week, students and faculty from Utah State University’s College of Natural Resources led field lessons with elementary school students from around Cache Valley during something they call “NR Days.”

USU’s Water Quality Extension programs coordinator Brian Greene taught elementary school students about insects that live in streams for the first part of their lives and in the air as adults. They are called aquatic macroinvertebrates, and Greene said they are biological indicators of clean, healthy water.

J. Urquhart, Mars Society

Utah has some unique water problems but they’re not that unique. Studying water in Utah can tell us a lot about similar places that also rely on high mountain snowpack for their yearly allotment. But a lot of the research involving water in Utah has implications way beyond that.

In this hour, four stories about local research with global legs. From feeding people in the Nile Delta to informing policy in Pakistan. From negotiating the shifting watery border between the U.S. and Mexico to...camping on Mars, we’re going far out on The Source.

Donna Barry, Utah State University

The United States had it’s heyday building dams in the 1930s and 40s, but there are still engineers designing dams right here in Utah. Jennifer Pemberton visited the Utah Water Research Lab in Logan to see models of cutting-edge dams designed to be built all over the world.

National Drought Mitigation Center

We’ve seen the image of a half empty Lake Powell and the now iconic bathtub ring around its rim. We’ve heard the stories coming out of California about wells running dry. We’ve learned a new term: sprinkler shaming. We know enough to know we’re in a drought, but what does that mean? What is drought? What should we do about it and why should we even care?

On The Source today, what we talk about when we talk about drought.

Jennifer Pemberton

UPR  has been asking listeners how drought has impacted their lives. Low water levels at some lakes and reservoirs mean Utahns might have to adjust their summer recreation plans. Jennifer Pemberton has this report on the effect of drought on Utah’s state parks.

Ryan Cunningham

For something so elemental, natural, essential and seemingly basic, there’s as much complexity to water as you’re willing to chase. From hydrology and fluid dynamics to understanding aquatic habitats to learning to swim or xeriscape your yard, there’s a lot to learn about water.

This week on The Source we’re talking about education and water. From swiftwater rescue classes to a day at the aquarium, we’ll meet unique teachers and students who specialize in aspects of water you might not have ever thought about.

Black Canyon of the Bear Whitewater Festival;

According to the Outdoor Industry Association, recreation generates over 120,000 jobs in Utah. It brings in $12 billion in consumer spending each year and nearly $1 billion additional in related taxes. 82% of Utahns participate in the outdoor recreation economy each year and that doesn’t include hunting or fishing.

In this program, we look at how to value recreation in the hierarchy of water uses. Whether it’s skiing, boating or fishing, a lot of us recreate on the water, but do those activities trump uses like irrigation, power generation, or drinking water? We’ll look at three specific cases where recreation comes into conflict with other uses of water and some of the ways groups have resolved those conflicts.

It’s contentious. It’s litigious. It’s fun! It’s recreation and water on The Source.


Hydropower projects borrow water from rivers to create electricity, but while that water is impounded in reservoirs and forced into high pressure tubes, it’s temporarily unavailable for fun uses, like whitewater kayaking. Jennifer Pemberton has this story about prioritizing recreation on the Weber River.

At the diversion dam on the Weber River just a few miles up the canyon from the town of Ogden, the water just disappears. There’s a wide swollen reservoir backed up behind the dam, but downstream, there are a lot of exposed rocks with just a trickle of water running between. Because most of the river is in a concrete pipe.

Jennifer Pemberton

When water is left alone, it makes a mess. It backs up into wetlands. Rivers overflow their banks. Mud and silt builds up, new channels open up. But Elijah Portugal, who studies how rivers and streams shape the land, says that that mess is what rivers need to be functional. “Messiness matters,” he says.

In this program, we’ll meet some of the people who have been responsible for cleaning up rivers: the state and federal agencies responsible for controlling water -- for making sure it doesn’t slow down or back up, that it gets to where we need it as efficiently as possible. We’ll also meet people who appreciate the messiness of streams in their natural states -- it’s that messiness that creates great habitat for fish and birds and a host of other ecosystem benefits. And we’ll meet the creatures that mess up watersheds in the best possible way. The hour is all about Beavers and Dams.

The man who used to head the nation’s dam-building agency is now advocating for tearing them down. The Source’s Jennifer Pemberton talked to Dan Beard, author of Deadbeat Dams: Why We Should Abolish the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Tear Down Glen Canyon Dam.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has left an indelible mark on the West, helping homesteaders use the desert river systems to not only make themselves at home but also to create opportunity for their economic viability.

Jennifer Pemberton

It’s the fourth largest lake of its kind in the world, but the Great Salt Lake is often underappreciated in Utah. With the lake level within a foot or two of its record low, now is a good time to get to know the Great Salt Lake.

Over 7 million migratory birds stop at the lake each year, stocking up for their epic journeys across continents. Between the people who come to appreciate the birds and a handful of specialized industries, the lake brings in over a billion dollars for the state each year.

In this episode of The Source, we’ll hear from researchers and resource managers as well as residents and visitors to the Great Salt Lake. We’ll learn how close we are to actually losing the lake forever and some of the threats that are challenging it well beyond its usual ups and downs.

We Came Here For The Promise Of Destruction

Mar 26, 2015
Elaine Taylor

Like most February days in southern California, it’s sunny and near 80 degrees. My boyfriend and I, both being very fair, have smeared a thick layer of SPF 50 onto our exposed skin. We have decided to forgo a fancy dinner for Valentine’s Day and instead camp in the remote desert near Joshua Tree National Park. Every other couple from L.A. has apparently decided to do this too, and the park feels an awful lot like Disneyland.

Ross Chambless

The Great Salt Lake is, right now, actually two lakes split in half by a long railroad causeway.  A couple years ago the crumbling culverts that allowed flow between the north and south arms of the lake were closed for safety.  Since then, scientists say, curious things are happening to the lake, especially as it approaches historic low levels.

Jennifer Pemberton

<<Share Your Spiral Jetty Story>>

Robert Smithson's famous work of land art -- Spiral Jetty -- was completed in 1970. A few short years later, the artwork was inundated with a rising lake level of the Great Salt Lake and stayed mostly submerged for 30 years.

As Utah heads into a drought, the lake level has dropped to a historically low level, exposing the famous Jetty. Have you been there recently? Have you been out to the Great Salt Lake only to find that the Jetty was underwater? What else did you see when you were out there?

We're collecting your Spiral Jetty stories for our next episode of The Source. Share your stories with us online or come talk to host Jennifer Pemberton in person at our Spiral Jetty story booth after the Science Unwrapped presentation "Salty Metaphors" on March 20 at Utah State University.

<<Submit Your Spiral Jetty Story>>

Jennifer Pemberton

Inside every tree there’s enough information to keep researchers around the West busy for their entire careers. This week on the program, a look at dendroclimatology -- using tree rings to re-construct what the climate was like in Utah hundreds of years ago. Because looking at the state’s climate past is the best way to understand the future.

Jennifer Pemberton talks to plant and climate scientists about how they interpret the thousands of tiny rings that make up a tree’s life history into a full picture of the cycles of wet and dry Utah has seen over the past thousand years.

Jennifer Pemberton

By taking tree ring samples from thousands of trees around the West and determining how old each tree is and how many cycles of wet and dry each has been through, researchers are trying to create the clearest picture of climate in the West over the past several centuries and in turn, hopefully, an equally clear glimpse into the future. Jennifer Pemberton joined scientist Justin DeRose on a field trip to collect tree ring samples and sends this report.