The man in the wide-brimmed hat waded into thigh-deep, slowly moving water and, with a whip of his fly rod, sent his cast into a deeper, swifter channel along the far bank where elusive trout were more likely to lurk.
The scene might have played out on any stretch of Colorado’s renowned fishing waters. But here, the gentle murmur of the South Platte River played harmony with the grind and whoosh of rush hour traffic on Interstate 25. And the low brush along the river’s edge gave way to the towering geometry of Denver’s skyline.
The sounds and images aren’t as incongruous as they once might have been. The narrative of the urban South Platte has meandered from its reputation as little more than an open sewer to the disastrous 1965 Denver flood, when four days of heavy rain triggered flows that swamped over a quarter-million acres, killed 21 people and caused more than a half-billion dollars in damage.
Since then, the story of the river’s passage through the metro area has included chapters of flood mitigation by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, continued abuse and, slowly, reinvention. But changing the narrative of the urban South Platte, and persuading more residents to embrace it, still requires a heavy lift.
Efforts have gathered momentum in recent years with a number of planned, completed or in-process river projects designed to draw people to the water. And with the River Mile development poised to create a massive, river-facing neighborhood where Elitch Gardens currently stands, the South Platte could — almost 160 years after Denver’s founding on its banks — once again become a civic touchstone.
“Denver took that birthright, that birthplace, and turned the river into literally a flowing sewer,” said Jeff Shoemaker, executive director of the Greenway Foundation, founded by his father, former state legislator Joe, in 1974 to continue improving the South Platte watershed. “We’ve been at it less than half a century. And we’re asked all the time, when are you done?
“There’s no ‘done.’ There’s next. There’s more.”
On the one hand, there appears to be rising optimism for the river — with Shoemaker a staunch and committed facilitator — that comes from decades of incremental progress both in and alongside the water. But the South Platte’s reputation has been hard to shake.
Even when the city rebuilt Shoemaker Plaza, it discovered coal tar seeping into the river, which delayed the project three years and doubled the price. And then there’s the simple truth that waterways coursing through major cities can be eternally susceptible to the hazards of urbanization.
“Don’t look at this river as a thing that has always been bad and (is) still bad,” said John Davenport, the rush-hour fisherman who works with Denver Trout Unlimited on improving the river for angling. “You walk along it, it is an urban river. There is trash there. … But you see a guy fly fishing out there, you think, ‘Maybe there is something to this.’”
The most emphatic voices heralding the gradual rebirth of the river put great faith in perception as a driver of shifting attitudes about the urban South Platte. The rationale goes something like this: If residents see its benefits in action, then they’ll be more likely to treat it with appropriate respect. They’ll pick up that stray piece of trash. Maybe even try fly fishing.
On the other hand, Davenport’s casts on a summer morning yielded nothing but tangled line in a river where, under more favorable conditions, he has caught hefty trout that have shown encouraging signs they can thrive here. The South Platte, like many waterways in the West, remains vulnerable to low flows and warm temperatures that can inhibit not only aquatic life but also the recreation that has helped rejuvenate the river.
The city’s expansion has brought more and more potential users to the South Platte’s banks, but the rising metro-area population coupled with development magnifies a common problem for city waterways: storm runoff. Rain and snow wash the streets and other impervious surfaces, and then send the effluent and its impurities — everything from lawn fertilizer to motor oil — streaming into the river and its tributaries.
And in seasons of subpar snowpack and scalding daytime temperatures, the river that in better times features adequate depth and pace for watersports such as tubing and kayaking can slow to a shallow, lazy crawl. Meanwhile, the Mary Carter Greenway, the ribbon of trail that parallels the South Platte in the south metro area and links to other trails that track the river’s course, draws an estimated 1 million runners, walkers, skaters and bikers a year.
The water is a work in progress. Projects in cities from Littleton to Sheridan to Denver, on the south end of the metro area, offer snapshots of the ongoing metamorphosis.
After the 1965 catastrophe, the plan for Chatfield Dam — dormant since 1956 over the state’s share of funding — finally gained urgency. And in 1969, the state created the Urban Drainage and Flood Control District, which spans six metro-area counties, has become a vehicle for jurisdictional cooperation and earned Shoemaker’s praise as “the single-most effective, efficient and productive public entity I’ve ever engaged with.”
The Army Corps of Engineers also went to work on flood mitigation and reshaped portions of the river into wider, shallower sections with trapezoidal bottoms — a great idea for flood control but not for letting water carve out deeper pools. The newer projects seek to restore some of the river’s natural elements by paying attention not only to hydrology, but also to ecology.
At South Platte Park in Littleton, near South Santa Fe Drive and West Mineral Avenue, the goal was to bring back natural and beneficial functions of the river over a stretch that previously had been wide and shallow and unconnected to the upper floodplain. Large cottonwood galleries were being lost and other vegetation suffered until a $5 million project restored more than two miles of river.
Denver Trout Unlimited also weighed in with funding for a study by an aquatic biologist to examine how to make the river healthier. The answer: Install a riparian bank to pinch the river into a narrower channel, create faster flows and a deeper pool to provide fish habitat. Then stock it with trout. Instead of a wide channel with steep banks, the river now features a gradual rise to the floodplain covered with cottonwoods and other vegetation.
The new configuration especially helps in years when low flows and warm temperatures could have had an even bigger impact.
“When we have those rougher years, imagine if the river was twice as wide and shallow,” said Laura Kroeger, program manager at the Urban Drainage and Flood Control District. “The fact that we’re able to reshape it at least lets us harness the amount of water, even a small amount, better than we did before.”
Not far upstream, Riverside Downs, named for the horse-racing track that once operated nearby, illustrates how communities are, almost literally, turning toward the South Platte. Where once the river was an afterthought running behind a commercial development, now an amphitheater-style setting creates a unique landscaping segue from the shopping and dining area to the water.
“This is commercial,” Kroeger said. “Embrace its commercialness. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be connected to the river.”
Economically, the efforts to revive the river — especially in Denver — are paying big dividends, according to a Greenway Foundation study. The organization’s 2018 annual report cites the benefits of resurgent property values and attendant tax revenue.
It points to property values within a half-mile of the South Platte and Cherry Creek that are 36 percent higher than other Denver properties. It also points to about $18 billion in property value that wouldn’t have materialized if 1970 conditions still existed on Denver waterways. That property value has translated to $100 million in tax funding for Denver Public Schools and an additional $64 million for the city, according to the study by Summit Economics.
It gauges other benefits of improved conditions, including tourism and recreation, at nearly $14 billion and claims significant cost savings from improved landscapes.
Around noon on a late summer day, 34-year-old Jake Vos, a Denver lawyer, stood in the parking lot of the Broken Tee Golf Club, packing up his car. But it was a surfboard, not clubs, that he wedged into his hatchback.
Along this stretch of the South Platte that winds through Sheridan, the River Run Park project expanded parking for golfers while also creating a park and wavemaker for the growing number of river surfers. Even at the end of a relatively dry summer, a group of the sport’s devotees still descended on the Wave Shaper that molded a barely workable flow into surfable stuff — although the rides under these conditions lasted, at best, only a few seconds. Last year, the Wave Shaper’s first at this location, the rides’ duration seemed limited only by the number of surfers waiting on the rocks for their turn.
Vos, who came to the sport through kayaking, has only surfed for 2½ years. But he’s part of a wider community that tracks online the water releases from Chatfield Reservoir and shares information via his website, Endlesswaves.net.
“For a lot of those guys, they didn’t give the South Platte a second thought till they started surfing,” Vos said. “Once people start to get down here, they start to care a lot more about the river corridor. I mean, it happened to me.”
At River Run, the main attraction has been nicknamed Benihanas — partly a reference to a skateboarding trick. But the name also pays homage to Ben Nielsen, the river designer for Merrick & Co. who installed the Wave Shaper technology. It lies beneath the drop structure of the river, like a door on hinges that can be adjusted, depending on the flow, to achieve optimum waves — and not just for surfers, but for kayakers and other boaters as well.
Nielsen has trained a group of volunteers to adjust the device.
But he also understands that the river serves anglers, too, and has worked with Denver Trout Unlimited to include, along this stretch, habitat structures that allow fish movement through an undercut in the bank made of recycled concrete pipe with a slot cut in one side. The structures also feature mounted cameras to track fish movement, which the trout folks are watching carefully to see if it restores passage.
“That project is, at its core, this multipurpose river enhancement that really illustrates the direction of urban river revitalization across the country,” Nielsen said, noting that urban river projects revolve around four things: flood control, river health, recreation and economic development.
Down on the rocks at River Run, a group of hard-core surfers took turns jumping atop their boards to milk what ride they can from the relatively weak flow. Last year, when the flows were frequently high, they wouldn’t have bothered on a day like this. But even though it takes about 180 cubic feet per second to make decent waves — and on this day the river slowed to about half that — they made the best of it.
On the nearby bank, an event shelter, a patio, bathroom facilities and a nature playground make the park a multiuse facility that benefited from cooperation among several jurisdictions, the flood control district and even Great Outdoors Colorado, or GOCO, whose grant funded the playground. It even features an electronic-device charging station.
Those amenities, as well as multiple drop structures upstream and downstream from Benihanas and an additional trail to complement the Greenway, brought the price tag to about $14 million. With just a little more work to be done on the last drop structure and some vegetation, the project is scheduled to be finished early and under the $14.7 million budget.
It’s a far cry from what this stretch of the South Platte used to be.
“I’ve talked to locals who say this was nasty down here,” said Dave Riordan, a retired law enforcement officer taking his turn on Benihanas. “Nobody would come down here. Now, the river is something to embrace. It’s a diamond in the rough.”
But the river does still have its rough edges, one of them being water quality. And nobody understands that better than the surfers and kayakers who ride and paddle the river — and inevitably take in a mouthful of water on occasion.
Some have settled on an antidote: shots of tequila or whiskey.
“When I first started surfing, my stomach wasn’t loving it,” said Eric Halborg, a surfing fanatic who’s also lead vocalist and guitarist for the band Dragondeer. “Now I literally do a half a shot before and a half a shot after, and I feel pretty good, never had any stomach issues ever again. I’m probably less worried about it than some. Me, I’d rather surf than be prudish about it.”
So how bad is the water?
Data shows that E. coli is “a persistent issue of concern on the urban waterway and a difficult problem to address because there are so many different potential sources of E. coli,” said Elizabeth Babcock, the air, water and climate manager of the Environmental Quality Division of the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment.
“From a public-health perspective, it’s still a challenge to say that we have the full range of recreational opportunities in the South Platte because of those levels of E. coli,” she said.
In its report, “Water Quality in Denver’s Streams,” the health department spells out the elevated E. coli levels, which basically haven’t changed in the past 15 years, that make the South Platte and other urban streams unsafe for recreation.
But that doesn’t mean no one’s allowed in the river, said Gregg Thomas, director of the department’s Environmental Quality Division.
While swimming is prohibited in city streams, activities such as wading, water play and boating are permitted. But Thomas said his agency has been working with park rangers over the past two years to make sure their message is clear: When you get out of the water, wash your hands or use sanitizer to minimize chances of ingesting anything harmful. (The agency emphasizes that these E. coli levels don’t refer to the city’s drinking water.)
Twenty years of data have shown that drought years are particularly problematic. Low flows generally mean warmer water, where E. coli can thrive.
That said, Thomas noted that E. coli levels in the South Platte have improved dramatically over the decades. In the worst of times, testing would reveal tens of thousands of colonies, or even more than 100,000. Now, the high-level days tend to be between 300 and 2,000 colonies. The threshold that would close a swim beach is 320.
“We’re down near those numbers, and we’re talking river, not a pristine swim beach, so those numbers aren’t bad, especially compared to the past,” Thomas said. “But as we grow and urbanize, build more hardscapes that water can run from the streets and into the river, those are always balancing acts. How do we better control and try to address issues with new development at the site and not at the end of a pipe?”
Nutrients, including nitrogen and phosphorus, that are released into the river from wastewater treatment plants on the north and south end of Denver and other sources also have consequences — such as the encouragement of algae growth. But the health department report indicates that those numbers have improved.
It’s not just the microscopic impurities that still plague the river — the big stuff also plays a role. And the situation has gotten worse over the past three years.
Along the 41-mile stretch of the South Platte that falls within the boundaries of the Urban Drainage and Flood Control District, its contractor projects that it will collect 865 cubic yards of garbage from the South Platte in 2018. That’s up from 750 cubic yards last year and 690 in 2016. The count includes items over 4 inches long and that can be carried by one or two people — so, anything as big as mattresses, shopping carts and tires. Larger, heavier items are still found, but they’re collected in special pickups and not included in the count.
Kroeger, of the flood control district, attributes the rise, in part, to population growth but also to general unawareness of how easy it is for trash to end up in the river. Garbage from windblown trash cans or recycling bins, casual littering, it doesn’t matter. Anything that hits the street can potentially find its way to the river through the stormwater system.
But possibly the biggest threat to more robust use of the South Platte remains low flows, which should be helped by the Environmental Pool, part of the Chatfield Reallocation Project that will store and release water to the river in times of stress. But, as Shoemaker noted, “The be-all and do-all for the water shortfall it is not. But it’s a start.”
Meanwhile, Jonathan Kahn, owner of Denver’s Confluence Kayaks, observes that while the trails alongside the river are nearly constantly used, the river is not.
“For one, the flows are inconsistent,” he said. “You can’t count on enough water to float.”
Kahn, whose business rents tubes and inflatable kayaks, counted only a dozen days this past summer that the water was great. While April and May provided decent flows from spring runoff, it was generally too cold for customers to ride the current. By late June, most days that he would count on for rental revenue saw flows too shallow to paddle.
“We operated (rentals) 10 days out of the whole summer, so it impacted my business, not having water,” he says.
It impacts everything.
John Davenport, of Denver Trout Unlimited, helps monitor the South Platte’s water temperature with gauges that record 190 data points from Chatfield Reservoir to East 80th Avenue. They’ve been set up to record hourly for five years. Low flows tend to increase water temperature. And temperature is key to the health of fish, especially cold-water varieties of trout.
And those trout, Davenport said, reflect river health.
“Trout are the canary in the mine,” he said. “If the water is good enough for trout, the water is good. Our overall goal is a healthy river. If we have a healthy enough river, we’ll have trout there.”
Rhys Duggan’s fish story isn’t about the one that got away. It’s about the first one he ever caught fly fishing without a guide. He keeps a photo of it on his phone, so it’s always quickly available for viewing.
There he stands, holding his prized trout, on the South Platte beneath an I-25 flyway.
“I think that’s really magic,” he said, admiring the image. “When I tell people some of the best fishing for rainbow trout is downtown on the South Platte River and then show them the photo, you should see their eyes. That’s the first step in changing that (negative) perception.”
Duggan, the president and CEO of Revesco Properties, which has announced plans for the River Mile development, gives away his affinity for fishing — and its importance to the South Platte — with the project’s logo: a geometric image of a rising fish. But his interest in the river dates to the late 1990s, when he arrived in Denver and scouted the city by checking out real estate.
He saw the river, but he saw no interaction with the city. That didn’t square with his own experience growing up in Vancouver, British Columbia, where the water — granted, it’s bordered by an ocean, not a river — is part of everyday life. Residential doors and office buildings open to the path that traces the water’s edge. Life faces the water.
“The path in Vancouver is called the Seawall,” he said. “Our path along the Platte is our version of that.”
In the Elitch Gardens property, he has a mile-long stretch of water to work with, and he aims to create, as kind of a career capstone project over the next 20 years, a river-facing neighborhood that incorporates a variety of recreational water features — including surfing and fishing. He points to other cities — Milwaukee, Detroit, Pittsburgh, even Los Angeles — that he calls part of a “renaissance going on in America with urban rivers and waterways.”
And he wants to serve all the various interests connected to the river, including industry, recreation, conservation, stormwater and agricultural water rights.
He hired, as part of his design team, a fish ecologist to sit with engineers and figure out how to ensure that the fish can move easily past the whitewater drop structures and the standing wave he’ll put in for surfers.
“It’s not like we’re putting a man on the moon here,” he said. “You’ve got to figure out a way for fish to get around something. Tell me where I need to go in the world to see how this works, and we’ll bring it back.”
Fish — trout — are important to changing the river’s narrative, which he considers no small task.
And that’s why he purchased “a couple thousand” rainbows from a hatchery in Boulder and, after going through proper channels, had them trucked to Denver and dispersed where his property borders the South Platte.
Folks at Denver Trout Unlimited helped with the project, but they were nervous about whether the rainbows would survive. Then Davenport went out several months later and caught a couple that seemed to be healthy. Several months after that, Duggan caught his beneath the interstate.
He did a couple more stocking projects and has another scheduled for January. By his reckoning, the trout effort has, by far, provided more bang for the buck than any other project he has done. It wasn’t a huge investment. But the “bang” has been walking, driving or biking past the river and seeing fly fishermen thigh-deep in the water, casting away.
“It seems super simple, right?” he said. “But there’s something important about that for me. It’s important because it’s heartening just to see people use the river in a way that makes them happy. But it also makes me happy because I think it’s the start, for me at least, of changing people’s perception of the river.”
Jeff Shoemaker, whose Greenway Foundation works with Duggan, calls them “Rhys’s Rainbows.” And while there may be something to those trout that are nudging the river revitalization along, Shoemaker saw the beginnings decades earlier.
On Labor Day in 1975, the city of Denver opened the first iteration of Confluence Park, where Cherry Creek meets the South Platte downtown. It featured Denver’s first boat chute and a grassy hill across from Shoemaker Plaza that had been nicknamed Mount Trashmore, reflecting the gritty core of this bump on reimagined landscape. A mile of trail stretched north along the South Platte, a mile south and a mile east along Cherry Creek.
At the dedication, Joe Shoemaker delivered a speech that resonated with his then-20-year-old son.
“My father said, ‘Mark my words, one day the best place to live, work and play in Denver is going to be along the South Platte River,’” Shoemaker recalled, pausing for effect. “And that day is today.”
Correction: This story has been updated to correct Gregg Thomas’s title. He is director of the Environmental Quality Division of the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment.