Future of the South Platte River

River gets new life, but demands pile up

After diverting, damming, draining and dumping on the South
Platte River for decades, Coloradans now dream of turning the
weary waterway into a beauty.

“”There’s something about a river system that seems to tug at
your heart and soul,” said Max Dodson, assistant regional
director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who has
paddled his raft down dozens of Western rivers.

But the South Platte tugs different people in different
directions. Designing the river of the future – from mountain
headwaters through the prairie and into Nebraska – means
figuring out how to balance clashing priorities.

The metro area’s booming population loves the South Platte as
a lifestyle amenity, with plenty of water rippling through
mountain and urban parks that are staging grounds for boating
and fishing forays. Denver leaders plan riverfrontapartments and
a massive entertainment complex.

Bird-watchers, hunters and government biologists want to
groom the South Platte as a wildlife preserve, home to
white-tailed deer and songbirds. Instead of landscaping, they
want cottonwoods preserved to house wood ducks and herons.
Rather than expanding paved trails for roller skaters, they want
restricted access and signs that urge skaters to be quiet.

A third contingent would harness the river as a water supply
for tomorrow’s suburbs and golf courses. The 2.5 million
population of Colorado’s South Platte River Basin is expected to
top 3.5 million by 2020, and the Denver Water Board says
existing water supplies will no longer meet demands by 2013.

But more upriver reservoirs to sustain new development would
mean less water for parks and wildlife habitat. Farmers
downriver from Denver may hold water rights that keep some water
flowing, but developers have the money to buy those water rights.

While forces for recreation, wildlife habitat and urban
growth tussle, others see hope in managing the South Platte more
efficiently. Water engineers are working on new ways of storing
South Platte water underground, reducing the need for big
reservoirs. Others envision filtering even the slimiest sewer
water until it’s clean enough to drink.

Yet even as new technology raises hopes for the future, the
question remains: Can a relatively feeble river satisfy everyone
at once?

On a grassy riverbank in the South Platte’s Elevenmile Canyon,
Prince Dunn and his family found a paradise where the phone
doesn’t ring, money doesn’t matter and smog doesn’t clog the air.

Getting there requires less than an hour’s drive in their
blue van from Colorado Springs. The Dunns plan to recharge along
the South Platte for the rest of their lives.

“”We like the open spaces,” said Dunn, 58, a former military
contractor from the Washington, D.C., area who now works at
Falcon Air Force Base. He cradled his camera with a contented

As the South Platte splashed over rocks, Dunn’s 6-year-old
son, Colin, cast a fishing line into a promising pool. Every few
minutes, the boy yelled “”I got one!” and tugged optimistically
on a slack line.

Dunn’s wife, Dianna, sat in the golden grass reading a
mystery called “”Riding Shotgun” while dogs Rose and Jessica
ran in a meadow.

“”This is perfection,” Dianna said.

For now, at least.

A mile down the canyon, the Dunns glimpsed the future. More
than 100 vehicles rumbled up the washboard road through
Elevenmile Canyon that morning.

U.S. Forest Service rangers estimate that the 30,000 people
who visited the canyon last year will increase over the next
decade to 70,000.

And not all will crave the tranquility so important to the
Dunns. Forest Service officials were shocked by a survey they
conducted that found a majority of visitors in Elevenmile Canyon
prefer crowds to quiet. More people mean more fun, those
surveyed said.

As the Dunns fished, beagles and terriers, old men and
children climbed out of cars. Rock climbers wearing neon-green
harnesses headed for the granite boulders towering over the
river. A woman in a lavender bikini oiled herself and reclined
in happy submission to the sun.

Above the canyon, it’s getting harder to keep fishermen happy
as they float around Elevenmile and Spinney Mountain reservoirs
on canvas-covered rubber boats, casting their lines and sipping
cans of beer.

“”Fishermen are catching maybe a fourth of what they caught
12 years ago,” said Dave Spencer, the area’s state ranger, with
20 years of experience on the job. “”They’re not as happy to be
here. Their nerves are on edge.”

Rangers are looking for ways to accommodate more people.

They’ve already built a $300,000 shower and laundry complex
at Elevenmile Reservoir, which has attracted women and children
who once stayed home while their husbands went fishing.

Ultimately, more people will mean more rules along the river,
rangers said.

At Elevenmile Canyon, there’s a plan to pave the riverside
road to reduce erosion that could clog the river with gravel.

There’s also a plan to close the last three miles of the
canyon road, as well as three campgrounds in the canyon ruined
by vandals. In the future, access to the river is likely to be
limited, initially on a first-come, first-served basis.
Eventually, rangers suggest higher entry fees – entering
Elevenmile Canyon now costs $3 – and maybe a permit system.

All this is fine with the Dunns. Anything to help preserve
Elevenmile Canyon as a quiet place for fishing and a family

“”No ice cream vendors,” said Prince, who serves on the
citizens advisory committee for the Pikes Peak Area Council of
Governments and advocates a radical remedy that would defy the
forces shaping the future of Colorado and its beleaguered Front
Range river.

“”My answer is: Stop the growth,” he said. “”You just stop
the urban development.”

The tenacity of a pheasant hen along a stretch of the South
Platte near Sterling amazed state wildlife biologist Warren

He watched as the bird tried to raise chicks. The first time,
a coyote discovered the nest and ate the eggs.

Then the pheasant built a new nest in a riverside alfalfa
field. This time, the eggs hatched. But a farmer’s combine mowed
through the nest and killed the tiny chicks.

The persistent hen tried again. It built another nest and
laid more eggs. This time, the chicks survived.

In Snyder’s mind, South Platte birds like that pheasant
symbolize the river’s natural resilience. He and hundreds of
other government biologists want to take advantage of that
quality. By nurturing the South Platte, they plan to create a
riparian corridor lusher than at any time in the river’s history.

Wildlife advocates envision turtles the size of manhole covers
swimming in the shadows of factories, wood ducks proliferating
at edges of farmers’ fields.

The vision extends from mountainous upriver stretches – where
federal rangers propose a protective “”wild and scenic”
designation – through a series of river corridor parks on the
prairie ending near Nebraska at Tamarack Ranch.

There’s been progress toward this vision: The Colorado
Division of Wildlife owns or operates nearly one-fifth of the
riverbed through the state as a preserve. And there’s growing
public support for wildlife habitat.

Hunters concerned that vanishing habitat threatens birds are
taking action through organizations such as Pheasants Forever.
The group, for example, pays for studies that provide data for
taking better care of birds.

Also, growing numbers of city folks flock to the river
corridor east of Denver to watch birds and take pictures. One
million Coloradans count themselves as bird-watchers, according
to local bird-watching clubs. They comb the river corridor
looking for birds they haven’t spotted before.    Looking ahead,
a group of prairie residents is trying to protect about 15,000
acres along the river near Orchard as wildlife habitat.

In 1993, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a
Centennial National Wildlife Refuge in the area. Locals opposed
that plan, suspicious of federal control. Now the locals are
trying to do much the same thing themselves. In January, they
created a land trust to prevent riverside development that might
hurt wildlife.

Preserving wildlife will require more of the expertise that
biologists like Snyder and his partner Tom Remington provide.
After all, the South Platte in its natural state barely
supported trees, let alone wood ducks and deer. The wildlife
habitat that biologists envision would be mostly a man-made
creation, requiring constant monitoring to measure and adjust

Tromping along a side channel near Sterling this spring,
Snyder and Remington extolled the benefits of floods. If new
dams are built upriver, flooding would be less likely.

Massive floods before the Platte was dammed scoured away most
cottonwoods. But biologists have found that a small flood
encourages growth of cottonwood trees, which serve as homes for

“”That’s regeneration,” Snyder marveled, touching a tiny
green cottonwood seedling. A blue heron flapped down the river.
A wood duck shot up from a bank. Three quail rustled in the

On state-owned land, and on private land owned by cooperative
farmers, Snyder and Remington are trying to help nature along by
planting thousands of sorghum plants and plum trees as cover for
birds. Their bird counts show that this strategy works. Bird
densities on state-run preserves are twice what they find in
heavily farmed areas along the South Platte.

None of the biologists’ work will matter if the South Platte
continues to be contained and tamed as a water-supply system.
Vast stretches of downriver habitat could dry up within a few

Yet the South Platte still is the lifeline for 2.5 million
people. The Denver Water Board predicts a water shortage of
100,000 acre-feet a year by 2045 if no new dams are built. (An
acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough to supply an urban
family of four for a year.)

Plans for recreation and wildlife habitat “”are all to the
good if we have ways of keeping water in the stream,” said Ed
Pokorney, planning director for the board. “”But to what extent
are we to import water from the Colorado River Basin so that we
can maintain the South Platte? The metro area is going to need
more and more water. Well, where is that water going to come

Nobody has a proven solution. But water engineers are
experimenting with new technology to use the South Platte more

One scheme is underground water storage. The engineers
foresee fields of wells up to 2,500 feet deep in aquifers
beneath the metro area, connected through a network of pipes to
surface water in the South Platte and to water delivery systems
for households.

The idea is to refill the aquifers in wet years, when spring
snowmelts send more water down the South Platte than farmers and
reservoirs can handle. In dry years, the aquifers would supply

So far, Douglas and Arapahoe counties, which rely on aquifers
to provide water for new housing developments and businesses,
lead the way in aquifer storage.

On a windblown bluff south of Highlands Ranch recently, water
consultant Courtney Hemenway parked his pickup and lifted the
lid off a cement bunker. Below it, a pipe went down 1,500 feet
into an aquifer.

Hemenway climbed down a ladder into the bunker. He gripped a
metal wheel with both hands and turned it. Instead of sucking
water out of the aquifer, the well began pumping water from the
South Platte River back into the aquifer for storage.

Hemenway can move more than 480 gallons of water a minute
into the aquifer through this well. He has supervised
retrofitting of four other wells in the area for two-way flows.

It’s possible to store “”as much water as we want” in
aquifers, says Lee Rozaklis, coordinator of a state task force
that has been brainstorming water supply problems since 1989,
when federal officials blocked the proposed Two Forks dam along
the South Platte. The dam would have supplied water for the
metro area.

The aquifer approach has complications. New reservoirs would
be necessary to hold river water until it could be pumped into
aquifers. The amount of water that can be stored is limited by
the number of wells drilled. Also, there’s still the issue of
changing downstream flows by diverting water from the South

Another way water suppliers hope to reduce reliance on the
South Platte is by recycling – purifying sewer water until it’s

Denver and EPA officials teamed up in the 1980s to build a
$40 million laboratory, located along the river at Denver’s
northern edge, to test water-recycling technology. After the
treatment, sewer water was cleaner than water coming out of taps
in Denver. It could work on a large scale, officials concluded.

Water board plans call for recycling up to a fifth of the
total metro-area water shortfall envisioned for 2045.

But recycling, like aquifer storage, diverts water from the
river. Today, about 35,000 acre-feet a year of treated sewer
water gushes back into the South Platte at the north edge of
Denver. Federal wildlife agencies may require Denver to maintain
that flow.

Coloradans share their water predicament. Booming Western cities
from Boise to Bend face growing demands on rivers for
recreation, wildlife habitat and water supplies.

But nobody is demanding quite so much from a single, small

“”We’re asking one very small river to provide recreation,
habitat, water, and it’s not much of a river to do all that,”
Pokorney, the Denver Water Board’s planning director, said with
a sigh.

“”Can we sustain this? I’ll tell you this: If people don’t
work together, we’ll be in dead straits.”