Each year, the Colorado Foundation for Water Education leads an urban waters bike tour through Denver. This tour is open to water professionals and citizens alike to learn about the South Platte Watershed and what is being done to make the 8-mile stretch of the river more user-friendly. On my first day as a Colorado Foundation for Water Education intern, I was able to participate in the 2017 bike tour, offered by CFWE in partnership with the Barr Lake and Milton Reservoir Watershed Association and the Colorado Stormwater Council. We started at Johnson Habitat Park and ended at Globeville Landing Park, with a few stops in between, where we heard from multiple guest speakers about the health of the South Platte, opportunities for recreation, and current and upcoming projects along the river.
At Johnson Habitat Park, we heard from the executive director of The Greenway Foundation, Jeff Shoemaker. Shoemaker spoke about the days when the river was ecologically dead, especially at that specific location because it used to be a dump so the water was heavily polluted, and no fish were present in the water. In 1974, The Greenway Foundation started to clean up the pollution and restore the riparian environment by using rocks and plants to create a more natural, less urban setting. Today there are many cold water species such as carp and rainbow trout that not only live in the South Platte, but thrive in it. For The Greenway Foundation, the main focus in recent years has been restoring and creating riverfront parks along the South Platte to provide areas for recreation and learning opportunities for children. In addition, we heard from Scott Schreiber, a stream restoration engineer at Matrix Design Group who also serves as president of the Denver Trout Unlimited (DTU) chapter. Schreiber spoke about water quality and maintaining a healthy river. There are about 70 days out of the year when no water flows through the South Platte, which is of concern because the more water that is present in the river, the healthier it will be. In order, to address this problem, DTU negotiated with Denver Water to release 10 acre-feet on those no-flow days.
We then pedal our bicycles along the South Platte River to our first stop at Weir Gulch, where we heard from Jill Piatt-Kemper with the City of Aurora. Jill spoke about ways that the cities of Denver, Lakewood, and Aurora are working together to ensure that they handle stormwater properly, as it can be a source of pollution for the South Platte. Pavement and concrete increase the rate at which runoff from storms reach the river, and the water picks up pollution from parking lots or roads it flows through, depositing that pollution into the river. Piatt-Kemper’s work aims to keep water away from homes so that storms and flooding cause minimal property damage, create a habitat for wildlife
along the riparian zone, and filter the runoff using grass. Filtering runoff is important because fish can’t survive when nutrient levels are too high in the river. The excess nutrients cause more plants to grow, therefore increasing the biological oxygen demand (BOD). An increase in BOD means that the plants are using all of the oxygen in the water, starving the fish of oxygen. The grass along the riparian zone will filter these nutrients out, use the nutrients to grow, and deliver fresh water to the river.
Our next stop was at Shoemaker Plaza at Confluence Park. There, we heard from Mike
Bouchard who is a landscape architect with the City and County of Denver. Bouchard spoke about the reconstruction of Shoemaker Plaza and the history of Confluence Park which is where the city of Denver first started. In the early years, parts of the South Platte and Cherry Creek were used as the city’s sewer and dump, and became channelized as a result of urbanization. In 1965, a flood drowned the city and caused millions of dollars in damage. As a result, Chatfield Reservoir was built, making areas along the South Platte safe and accessible again. In order to increase river access, Denver started construction on Shoemaker Plaza in 1974. In spring 2016, reconstruction started to make the plaza larger and more user-friendly as the area is seeing more use. However, two months into the project, workers found coal tar, a byproduct of energy production. They had to stop construction in order to clean up
all of the coal tar to ensure that it did not make its way into the water. The site is now clean and construction can continue to create a place where people today and future generations will be able to come and enjoy Colorado’s most precious resource.
Our last stop was Globeville Landing Park where we heard from Celia Vanderloop from the City and County of Denver. Celia spoke about the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative Project in the Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are historically poor and have been neglected. This project will create a water feature that will hold water during large rain events in order to control flooding and give access to a green space, restore walkability, water quality, and water accessibility. Part of this project is to clean up the Superfund site near the Denver Coliseum.
As Denver continues to urbanize, there is an increased environmental impact. The challenge is to integrate having a thriving city and a thriving environment. Denver has done a great job in ensuring that the balance is met and that everyone has access to a green space or park where their children can explore and appreciate nature in our beautiful state.