West Davis Corridor may help balance human development and wetland wildlife

Saturday , June 02, 2018 - 5:00 AM

The West Davis Corridor has long been a divisive issue in northern Utah. It could soon create a physical divide, too, establishing a border between the booming Wasatch Front development to the east and wildlife and wetland habitat to the west.

As part of the corridor project, which will serve as an alternative to Interstate 15, the Utah Department of Transportation plans to acquire and restore 1,100 acres of wetlands and uplands west of the freeway’s future alignment. It won’t be easy — targeted properties include a mink farm, a pig farm, residential homes, junkyards and ranches. Those properties will be razed and returned to nature, creating more habitat for the hundreds of bird species that depend on the Great Salt Lake ecosystem. 

Both the bird habitat buffering the lake and the water it needs to thrive are under threat of being gobbled by development in Weber and Davis counties.

“We’re building a road on ... natural habitat that has been taken over by the humans,” said Randy Jefferies, a program director for UDOT. “We need to make up for that, erase our carbon footprint, if you want to say it that way.”

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Altruistic as it sounds, UDOT isn’t doing it out of a pure environmental ethic. The West Davis Corridor will destroy 47 acres of existing wetlands and have an indirect impact on 80 more acres. Federal agencies like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers require the mitigation. 

The restored wetlands will remain protected and undeveloped, similar to the marshes west of the Legacy Parkway.

“It will be a long-term investment ... That land will forever be kept in a protected state,” Jefferies said.

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Wetlands are the marshy areas where rivers and estuaries saturate the land and are vital to both people and wildlife, especially in drought-stricken Western states where water is scarce. They control flooding, filter polluted water and purify groundwater. Nearly 75 percent of Utah’s wetlands are near the Great Salt Lake, many of them west of the future West Davis Corridor, where they also create an environment for millions of birds to flock and forage.

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The area immediately adjacent to a wetland — the upland — is vital, too. It’s drier, with mature grasses and shrubs for refuge. That’s where the birds tend to nest and rest. It’s also an attractive area to turn into a subdivision.

While all destroyed wetlands have to be mitigated under federal law, big government agencies like UDOT can often do a more effective job than private landowners, Jefferies said.

“A government agency has the power to condemn land for their public purpose, so they have more options than a homeowner or private landholder,” Jefferies said.

In other words, a developer can set aside a drainage area to preserve wetlands, but it will be surrounded by homes and buildings. UDOT has the leverage to preserve a larger, more connected area.

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UDOT plans to spend $20 million purchasing privately-held lands for the mitigation. Those lands mostly lie west of the corridor and will help create a more continuous stretch of wetland or upland habitat.

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The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers has yet to sign off on the mitigation plan, but work will likely take place during the 19-mile West Davis Corridor construction. UDOT has a five-year period to prove to federal regulators that its wetland restoration efforts were successful.

From there, the agency plans to turn over the land to the Farmington Bay Wildlife Management Area and The Nature Conservancy’s Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve

“No one is happy when they hear growth is coming their way, but the project has been well-managed, I think,” said Jason Jones, manager of the wildlife management area, which is mostly owned by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

The West Davis Corridor will likely create a barrier against further urban sprawl, which Jones expects to benefit the 18,000-acre Farmington Bay. It will also create and protect some of that vital upland habitat that the area’s wildlife needs.

“At Farmington Bay we’re upland-limited and uplands provide good nesting habitat for birds,” he said. “That’s what people would build houses on, the properties just adjacent to us. Those are the properties we’re hoping will come our way.”

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Other neighbors feel ambivalent about the project, even with the new habitat it could create. 

“A freeway’s going to have an impact,” said Chris Brown, director of stewardship for The Nature Conservancy. “It’s unavoidable. Certain species will shy away. Some birds will be fine with it.”

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Ducks are among the birds Brown expects to adapt to the corridor and its onslaught of noise and traffic. Great blue heron and white-face ibis will likely stay away, he said. Owls and hawks will likely face danger from vehicle collisions as they hunt for rodents near the roadside. 

Because the Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve sits at one of the lowest points in the valley, Brown also worries about increased pollution. 

“On those inversion days ... when it clears off in upper benches, down here we’re in a fog bank all day,” he said. “If we’ve got a freeway running by, all the exhaust is going to sit right in that inversion.”

Brown has worked at the Shorelands Preserve for 15 years and watched subdivisions rapidly expand right up to the preserve’s boundaries. Less water reaches the wetlands these days, as farms get converted to urban land. 

Instead of receiving a steady flow of runoff during irrigation season, Brown now has to grapple with a deluge of stormwater, carrying with it nutrients and urban pollutants.

“The more asphalt and concrete you lay, the more it runs off. But the timing of it is not always good,” Brown said. “It’s not predictable. It’s not reliable enough to keep these wetlands wet.”

As the farms get sold, rezoned and annexed into cities, birds are also losing valuable wide open spaces and habitats. The footprint of development is hard to dodge on the urbanized Wasatch Front, whether its a road or a row of homes. 

“In a perfect world, do I want the freeway? No. but I’m either going to have the freeway or houses. It’s just inevitable,” Brown said. “I have houses on the border of preserve now. They all have some sort of impact.”

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The corridor will destroy or impact 14 acres of the 4,400-acre Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve, although it stands to gain hundreds more once UDOT restores the adjoining land. Plenty of parcels are surrounded on three sides by the Shorelands Preserve. That land is becoming increasingly hard to purchase as property values skyrocket. That’s where UDOT’s project can be beneficial, Brown said. 

“We could have a big huge chunk of storage sheds going in the middle of our preserve,” he said. “(UDOT) will help offset some of those potential threats to the preserve.”

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UDOT can help acquire more water rights for area’s wetlands as well, helping to balance wetlands and population growth on the arid and increasingly thirsty Wasatch Front.  

“You can look at the data, the Great Salt Lake’s at almost an all-time low and the snowpack’s going with it,” Brown said. “There’s not as much water out here.”

The Great Salt Lake hit a record-low in late 2016. With last year’s dismal winter, there’s no relief in sight for Utah’s regional water woes. Jones shares those concerns at Farmington Bay.

“The impacts I worry about are impacts from water,” he said. “I’m not so much worried about the freeway, I’m more worried about how state and public are going to think about water in the future. That’s what’s going to impact birds that use the Great Salt Lake.”

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/LeiaInTheField or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen

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