By Meagan Webber
I spent my first day as an intern with the Colorado Foundation for Water Education on a bike, exploring a watershed. Talk about hands-on experience from the get-go! I got to participate in one of the CFWE’s Urban Waters Bike Tours, which invites citizens, scientists, planners, and water managers to tour part of a watershed and further their understanding of the relationship between water use, river health, and community development. The two 2016 bike tours (on June 7th and 8th) rode along a 9-mile stretch of Bear Creek. The watershed itself finds its origins in the Mount Evans Wilderness, 31 miles west of Denver.
The tour began at the Mountain View Pavilion, right next to the Bear Creek Reservoir and Dam. Off to the west, a few thunderheads dulled the scorching heat of the day while threatening to unleash torrents of rain. Thankfully, the storm refrained from doing the latter.
Kristin Maharg, CFWE’s director of programs, welcomed the thirty or so participants and then handed off the microphone to Russell Clayshulte of the Bear Creek Watershed Association to help us get our bearings (pun intended). One of his main points was the importance of nutrient management and how too much of a seemingly good thing can be damaging. High concentrations of nutrients like phosphorous and ammonia in water can accelerate the growth of algae which, upon dying and decaying, deplete the surrounding water of oxygen. This phenomenon is called eutrophication and renders perfectly good habitat inhospitable to all aquatic creatures, as there is no oxygen left for them. One of the biggest non-point sources of these high nutrient loads is animal manure from species like horses, dogs, geese, and elk. This is why picking up after your pets is so important—it helps conserve aquatic habitats!
Next, Kevin Stewart (Urban Drainage and Flood Control District) discussed the history of the dam, reminding us that its main purpose is as a flood control mechanism. During the September 2013 floods, the water level in the reservoir rose 50 feet! After hearing an update on the Barr/Milton Watershed from Steve Lundt and Lisa Hollander (Metro Wastewater Reclamation District), we topped off our water bottles and set out on our journey. We rode over the dam, through a golf course and residential areas to reach our next stop in the Bear Creek Greenbelt in the City of Lakewood. There, Alan Searcy described the sand filtration system in the small pond behind him. He also explained how they use sedges as part of their strategy for natural biological uptake of excess nutrients. This means that the plants use the nutrients in their bodies, thus keeping them from causing harm in the surrounding environment. To those who don’t know about the sophisticated filtration methods in place, it might seem like an unremarkable pond if not for the giant straw protruding from its depths with a sign reading “Think About Your Drink.” This is meant to encourage passersby on Hampden Avenue to do just that. Here we also heard from Dave Lightheart (Bear Creek Water and Sanitation District) on how development in the city may affect water supplies in the coming years, possibly leading to shortages. It’s crucial to consider the needs of new and existing developments now, before problems arise.
We hopped on our bikes again to wind our way along Bear Creek and beneath several underpasses as we ventured further into the city. Stop number three was at Bear Creek Park, where Jon Novick described a tool that the City of Denver has been developing along with many other organizations to help citizens better understand water quality data that they can access online. They use a storyline to introduce pollutants like E. Coli and connect them to the context of people’s daily lives. Next, we heard from Donny Roush and Rachel Hansgen about Earth Force and Groundwork Denver’s initiatives to engage youth in learning about water and how to manage it responsibly. They displayed how to use a kick-net that students use to find and examine aquatic invertebrates (pictured above).
Our final stop was along the South Platte River in Sheridan where we listened to Jennifer Henninger (City of Sheridan), Joni Nuttle (Colorado Water Quality Control Division), and Julie Kinsey (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) discuss collaboration for community development from city planning, government, and regulatory perspectives. They focused on how the river has shifted from being the community’s dumping ground to a main focus for economic development in Sheridan. Kinsey emphasized that for water quality to actually improve and live up to the standards of the EPA, implementation of plans needs to include flexibility.
Sweaty and tired, we all headed over to the Boggy Draw Brewery for happy hour at the conclusion of the tour. Over the course of the ride, I had several opportunities to converse with water management professionals about what first drew them to this field and what projects they are currently working on. It’s heartening to see just how many organizations and people are working to responsibly manage Colorado’s water resources to avoid future problems. I’m excited to have the opportunity to get involved and learn more from this vibrant community.
If you’re down to learn more about our state’s precious water resources and network with water experts and enthusiasts, join us for the next tour of the summer—The Gunnison Basin Tour, on June 21st and 22nd!