Jordan River Learning Lab

Although the Jordan River faces many problems, it is still an oasis of calm in the midst of the city.

Although fish and others who rely on our rivers don’t see the separation, our legal system has long treated water quality and quantity as unrelated concerns. Water quality is regulated by the federal Clean Water Act, while state laws govern water quantity. The Jordan River Lab is designed to explore real world ways in which river restoration projects can better integrate water quantity and water quality policies to achieve truly health rivers.

The Jordan River is located in northern Utah, where it flows approximately 51 miles north from Utah Lake to Great Salt Lake. The Jordan is identified as impaired for a variety of parameters along its entire length. This Lab is focused on the lower Jordan River, which is impaired due to insufficient dissolved oxygen (along with benthic macroinvertrebrate problems and E. coli).

The entire Jordan River is heavily flow-managed, and the lower Jordan is particularly impacted. At the upstream boundary of the lower Jordan, the average annual flow of the river between 1980 and 2003 was 573,900 acre-feet, but was only 106,145 acre-feet at the next major road crossing just five blocks downstream. This change reflects the impact of a large diversion – the Surplus Canal – which leaves as little as 10 or 20 percent of the natural flows in the Jordan River channel. The draft TMDL for the Jordan notes that flows on the lower Jordan are relatively static stating: “…monthly means flows to the lower Jordan River [are] relatively constant at 190 to 320 cfs.”

The Surplus Canal diversion is managed by Salt Lake City. The City uses the diversion to meet the objectives of county and municipal flood control programs, minimizing risks to landowners along the lower Jordan. However, the City has indicated openness -- within certain parameters -- to the idea of modifying their management to improve use support on the lower Jordan. Changing flows in the river could help improve the dissolved oxygen levels directly and could help "flush out" the organic matter currently causing problems in the river. More natural flows could also improve habitat and the health of the river generally.

Purpose and Goals

In this Lab, River Network and our Partners are investigating how changes to flow management might enhance efforts to achieve water quality criteria for dissolved oxygen, while also improving ecosystem function in the lower Jordan.

Current Status

Work under this Lab has been divided into four phases. Phase 1 involves testing several hypotheses about how flow might improve the situation in the lower Jordan. Phase 2 involves more in-depth analysis of a selected hypotheses or approach. Phase 3 will -- hopefully! -- involve experimental flow releases. Phase 4 will involve implementing long-term flow management changes. We are just wrapping up Phase 1 and designing Phase 2.

As the project progresses, we are sharing our lessons learned via interim "Lab Reports." These short report summarize our approach, lessons learned, and future plans at key points in the process. Check back regularly for Lab Reports.

Introduction to the Jordan River Lab Reports -- Background on the Problem and the Theory

Phase 1
  • Lab Report 1 -- Testing the Scour Hypothesis
  • Lab Report 2 -- Testing the Direct Dissolved Oxygen Effects Hypothesis
  • Final Phase 1 Report -- This is a technical report summarizing our approach and modeling results from Phase 1.


This Lab includes a variety of governmental and non-governmental partners:


Although the City is open to the idea of modifying their operations, many questions need to be answered before any changes could be implemented. This Learning Lab will use modeling and other analysis to demonstrate what water quality improvements -- if any -- are possible if flow management of the diversion is modified. We'll also investigate what other impacts -- both positive and negative --the changes in flow could have on the river and downstream users. Lastly, the Lab will help with communicating our findings to stakeholders and others involved in the ultimate decisions about water on the river.

Lessons learned here will address policy and legal topics (i.e. integration of water quality and water quantity law), technical tools (i.e. what it takes to do this type of technical analysis) and social (e.g. best practices for communicating with stakeholders about new ideas in a contentious world of water quantity in the West).

Resources and Ideas

As this Lab develops, we'll post progress reports, best practices summaries, and other useful information here. For now, we're providing links to some of the best information we've found as we've researched the issues. We update this section as we find new, useful information!