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The South Platte River viewed from the Clear Creek Trail on Sunday, Aug. 8, 2021 in Denver. The river originates west of Denver and is a major source of water for the fast-growing Front Range region. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Public officials, conservation groups and citizen speakers pleaded with the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission Monday to reverse a 2020 decision and strengthen protections for the South Platte River in north Denver and Adams County, but the commissioners declined. 

Opponents of the commission’s decision last year thought they had one last chance in a “town hall” feedback format to urge the commissioners to revisit the controversial vote, which rejected a staff recommendation to upgrade the South Platte to higher water quality protections. They pointed to the recent weeks of high heat and air pollution in metro Denver, as well as a new climate change report showing irrefutable and irreversible damage to the environment, as more reasons to protect the river with tougher regulations. 

“It’s never too late to do the right thing,” Commerce City Councilwoman Susan Noble read from a letter by Mayor Benjamin Huseman. 

“We cannot wait five more years to upgrade or revisit what’s happening to the communities in north Denver,” said Ean Tafoya, Colorado director of the nonprofit GreenLatinos.

The commissioners, who are appointed by Gov. Jared Polis to oversee the Water Quality Control Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said they would not reverse their 2020 decision now. The coalition favoring more protections said after the town hall they would consider trying to force the commission to reconsider through a petition process, by taking legal action. 

Bikers on the Platte River Trail near Elyria-Swansea on Sunday, August 8, 2021 in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

But some commissioners appeared to leave the door open to further discussions and to seek more community input on future river decisions.

“I think what we have now is a clarion call to revisit how this body does business. Without blaming anyone or anything, I think we’ve come to take for granted the way things work,” commission Chair Joan Card said. “And, the way things work is not working for everybody in an equitable way.”

Those who want to elevate the South Platte’s urban stretches used the commission’s town hall comment period to attack the 2020 decision. The staff of the water quality division last year had recommended that the South Platte River through north Denver and Adams County, long plagued by industrial releases and wastewater effluent, be upgraded to the next higher level of stream protections.

The higher level would have forced existing polluters in that section, like Metro Wastewater, Suncor or Molson Coors, to avoid further degrading water quality with any new activity unless they could prove it was essential to their continuing business. As it stands now, those existing polluters have “protected use” status that permits them to degrade the water, even though water quality in those central urban streams has improved in recent decades. 

The Platte River Trail near Elyria-Swansea is seen on Sunday, August 8, 2021 in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

The Colorado division of Parks and Wildlife, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Adams County Commissioners and others had supported the staff request for a river protection upgrade. The water commissioners rejected the idea last year, and then again in June.

Adams County Commissioner Steve O’Dorisio said he wanted to be frank with the water commissioners that not enough opponents were prepared for the discussion ahead of the 2020 decision. 

“Back in 2020 we did not know how this specific decision would affect our river and our communities,” O’Dorisio said. 

Jeff Neuman-Lee, describing himself as a citizen speaker for the town hall forum, pointed to Colorado’s air fouled by wildfire smoke and heat-generated ozone in recent weeks. 

“We’ve been just degrading our Earth over and over and over again, and we can’t tolerate any more,” he said. “It’s depressing to see that we’re allowing water quality to go unheeded; to create stretches of our rivers and say we don’t care about them, we’re just going to let them go.”

Clear Creek Trail is seen on Sunday, August 8, 2021 in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

One water quality commissioner urged the speakers Monday to avoid making their policy arguments into personal attacks, but added that the commission has heard the past year’s worth of protests loud and clear. 

“I just want to assure you that we’re not ignoring anyone, but our entire job and role on this commission is to hear you,” water Commissioner April Long said. 

Some of Monday’s speakers said they were concerned that leaving the South Platte’s water quality protection where it is now will weaken the current permit renewal process underway for the Suncor refinery, which borders Sand Creek as it empties into the South Platte. The state health department is reviewing and answering public comments on Suncor’s permit application, and conservationists and neighborhood groups want Suncor’s water and air pollution caps cut way back. 

“This idea of grandfathered legacy pollution,” Tafoya said, “just because they always have, doesn’t mean they should continue to.” 

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...