In a state rife with land disputes, few are as polarizing as the one regarding SkiLink, a proposed transit lift between Canyons and Solitude. SkiLink is a hot-button social, environmental and economic issue for Utahns, and the divide between stakeholders is gaping. This is the fourth in a series of stories breaking down the issues around Utah’s most controversial ski lift.

Just as it is today, City Creek was a recreation hub in the 1940s. Back then, Salt Lake residents streamed up the canyon in droves, bringing with them pets, litter and other sources of filth. The result? In 1951, City Creek became so bacteria-ridden that it was closed to the public for 14 years.

Water treatment has improved a tad since the mid-twentieth century, but those recreating in watershed areas still have an adverse effect on the very water they drink. This is what worries Laura Briefer, Salt Lake City’s water resources manager, about SkiLink, which would bring more recreators into the critical Big Cottonwood Canyon watershed.

“Right now, this national forest [Wasatch-Cache-Uinta] is in the top five most visited in the country,” Briefer says. “It’s very well loved and used, but there is the risk of loving the watershed to death.”

When talking about watershed in Salt Lake City, a couple details are important to understand. First, the surface runoff on the west side of the Wasatch is the primary water source for more than 400,000 residents. Second, it takes just seven hours for a raindrop at the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon to reach the water treatment facility at its base. Water that sits in a reservoir has enough time to shed contaminants, while pollutants hitchhike with surface runoff all the way to the treatment plant.

SkiLink and a greater interconnect system would bring more people into the upper regions of the watershed, causing what Briefer calls a “yellow-snow effect,” and that yellow contaminant ends up in Salt Lake’s drinking water at the treatment plant. In short, more people recreating in the watershed means dirtier water at the treatment plant, which requires extra cleansing chemicals or the plant must shut down to let the grime pass.

But SkiLink proponents say that’s not the entire story.

“We’ve spent more time looking at the environmental impacts than anything else,” says Canyons Managing Director Mike Goar. “At the end of the day, when we were able to say there were no impacts on water quality, no negative impacts to air quality, to plant and animal species, it allowed us to look at the project through traffic and economic impacts.”

Goar argues an interconnect system would be a net positive for the environment. Sure, it would degrade the landscape a bit, but it would also take cars off the road as tourists would simply ride lifts from resort to resort, rather than driving around the Wasatch. Goar also says current ski resorts are evidence that ski lifts don’t damage the watershed.

To Briefer, it’s not that simple. She says the reason behind Salt Lake’s exceptional water quality is dedicated preservation. If that dedication stalls and more skiers are lifted to the watershed area, Briefer says the Cottonwood canyons could resemble the ‘50s version of City Creek.