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For years it was nicknamed “the invisible river.” At best, the Jordan River was known as being neglected, its banks overgrown, its water polluted. At worst, it had a reputation for being a place no one wanted to touch – a river full of old shopping carts, trash, wastewater, and the occasional car or even dead body. For decades, managers of the river have faced a problem that’s twofold: 1) How do we improve the ecological condition of the river? and 2) How do we make this a place that people actually want to visit and enjoy?

Stretching 51 miles from its headwaters at Utah Lake, the Jordan River flows north through four of the state’s largest cities (Sandy, West Jordan, West Valley City, and Salt Lake City) before emptying into the Great Salt Lake. In the 1970s, the state began development of a 40-mile-long linear park along the river called the Jordan Parkway. Despite its close proximity to major population centers, many residents complained that they were afraid to recreate along the Jordan Parkway for fear of the pollution and crime.

Even so, some other residents envisioned a different story for the Jordan. Over the years, grassroots organizations and government agencies have rallied behind the river, proposing cleanups and better trail systems and easier access for canoes and kayaks and fishing. The U.S. EPA designated Superfund sites to clean up areas adjacent to the river.

In 2003, a nonprofit called Scenic America named the Jordan to its list of “Last Chance Landscapes,” places that are so at risk of losing their scenic beauty that drastic action is required. The Department of the Interior, in its 2011 America’s Great Outdoors 50-State Report, listed completing the Jordan River Parkway as one of its goals. Federal agencies made plans to partner with state and local governments and other stakeholders on a shared conservation and recreation agenda.

Finally, in 2014, the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands (FFSL) contracted SWCA to facilitate the development of a comprehensive management plan for the Jordan River. It was the first time the state has ever commissioned a river plan, and the resulting work has led to the development of additional river plans across the state. Rather than just compile an unwieldy document, project staff and our GIS experts decided to develop an interactive story map that everyone – from government officials to local residents – could use to understand the proposed vision and uses for the river.

In 2017, SWCA along with the FFSL won “Best Interactive Web Mapping Application” at the UGIC Conference for the Jordan River Comprehensive Management Plan Story Map.


We recently connected with Brian Nicholson and Gretchen Semerad, two leaders in the development of the Jordan River Comprehensive Management Plan. Here’s what they have to say about the river and the innovative story map:  


The Wire: I understand this was the first time the state of Utah has ever done a river plan. What prompted them to do so?

The state is mandated to develop management plans for all sovereign lands. The Utah legislature defines sovereign lands as “those lands lying below the ordinary high water mark of navigable bodies of water at the date of statehood and owned by the state by virtue of its sovereignty.” Past management efforts have focused on the beds of large lakes: Great Salt Lake, Utah Lake, and the Utah portion of Bear Lake. Now that they have developed plans for these areas, they had the time and money to focus on the beds and banks of rivers that are considered sovereign lands. The Jordan River was the first given current pressure from development and the very active Jordan River Commission, a mix of governmental and non-governmental representatives working together to enhance, preserve, protect, and responsibly develop the river corridor.


The Wire: Tell me a little more about the importance of this river – to people, wildlife, industry, the ecosystem?

The Jordan River is the focal point for many communities along the Wasatch Front. It is a natural area that provides multiple opportunities for recreation and is home to wildlife species such as mule deer, red fox, North American beaver, little brown bat, Woodhouse’s toad, and a wide variety of bird species. However, given its proximity to major urban areas, it has seen its share of abuse – from channel straightening and dewatering for flood control purposes to dumping, to invasive species, to transient populations living along the shore. There is a movement to restore the river and reinvent it as a community resource.


The Wire: Were there competing interests along the river? How did that come into play?

The river runs through three counties and 15 municipalities, and multiple agencies have management responsibilities on the river in addition to FFSL (e.g., Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Utah Division of State Parks and Rec, Utah Division of Water Rights). One of the goals of the comprehensive management plan (CMP) was improved coordination among state agencies where their management jurisdictions intersect.


The Wire: How does the plan prevent future damage to the river?

For all intents and purposes, the damage to the river had been done. What the management plan tries to do is prioritize preservation of high quality habitat, identify restoration opportunities, note recreation and access needs, and focus development in areas that have already been impacted. In addition, the plan outlines best management practices to avoid and minimize future impacts.

As part of the stakeholder process, we worked to incorporate information and points of view from the public and all involved governments or managing entities. FFSL hopes to better coordinate with all stakeholders through implementation of the plan. The planning process itself helped raise awareness of the need for better coordination to manage the river as a whole.


The Wire: At what point did you guys realize the interactive story map would be a good solution for this plan?

From the very beginning. This is a linear resource with a lot of data and information about it. We knew that to make an effective plan we had to create a document that was visually and graphically rich. We could not get all information into one document, because it would be too long and cumbersome. We knew it needed to take multiple forms, hence the story map and GIS data viewer. The story map provides open access for all users of the plan. Anyone can view it, interact with it, and better understand FFSL’s vision for the river.


The Wire: What was your favorite part of working on this project?

We really enjoyed working with stakeholders to better understand current conditions of the river and working with FFSL to develop management goals and objectives that guide management toward a better future for the river.


The Wire: Anything else interesting/significant about this project that readers should know?

One thing we found interesting was that the river is very different as it flows through natural, agriculture, residential, and industrial areas. In many places the river is pretty beat up, but one is still surprised by the wildlife and solitude you’ll find in such close proximity to the city. There’s so much potential here for bringing this river back to life.

Bonus coverage of the Jordan River project

Featured image courtesy of Elliot Mott