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When the Earth shifted about 2,600 years ago, the Jordan River channel moved east from a delta on the edge of the Great Salt Lake to its present location at Farmington Bay, leaving the original delta high and dry.
That changed Wednesday when new floodgates on the National Audubon Society's 2,738-acre South Shore Preserve were opened to allow water to again flow in that ancient riverbed and create new wetlands.
It did not take long for a Wilson's phalarope, one of millions of migrating birds that have made the Great Salt Lake a site of hemispheric importance for shorebirds, to land on what had been a dry mud flat moments before.
"That's pretty exciting," said Ella Sorensen, who manages the preserve for the Audubon Society and whose vision and work with multiple agencies helped create the current preserve. "Build it and they will come."
Wayne Martinson, coordinator of bird areas in Utah for the National Audubon Society, said he used to visit the dry river bed and imagine water flowing in the old Jordan River.
"Now I don't have to imagine," he said. "It's exhilarating."
The South Shore Preserve is part of a larger complex. The block of land includes Kennecott's Inland Sea Shorebird Reserve; a wetlands built by the Salt Lake International Airport to replace those lost to a third runway; private duck clubs; and Audubon's Lee Creek area. Together, it preserves a significant portion of the south shore of the Great Salt Lake as bird habitat.
Only the Lee Creek area just west of Interstate 80 is open to the public, largely because the larger complex is surrounded by privately owned land, making access difficult.
"At some point we need to look at public access or behind-the-gates special tours," said Martinson. "We need to work with landowners to make them feel comfortable with tours like this."
The preservation effort involved many diverse interests, from local governments and conservations organizations to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, hunters, and private landowner Rio Tinto, most of whom were represented at Wednesday's water release.
Ducks Unlimited, for example, provided engineering for the water system and helped supply building materials while the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service provided $190,000 for the project, along with advice and construction oversight.
The National Audubon Society owns the 1,434-acre Gillmor Sanctuary, which is part of the 2,738-acre South Shore Preserve. Much of the remaining land was purchased by the Utah Reclamation and Mitigation Commission, with help from the Nature Conservancy.
"We recognized the importance of the Great Salt Lake and wanted to serve as a catalyst to help things along," said Michael Weland, executive director of the Mitigation Commission. "So many people are committed to doing good things for the lake that I am surprised how easy it has been."
Martinson said the newly flooded area will provide a place to rest and forage for the millions of shorebirds that migrate through Utah, including stilts, avocets, white-faced ibis and curlews. Some of the birds travel as far north as Canada and as far south as the tip of South America.