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Environmental sampling specialist Patrick Maes samples water from the South Platte River at Metro Water Recovery on April 6, 2022, in Denver. Metro Water Recovery is the largest wastewater treatment facility in the western U.S. and treats up to 130 million gallons of water daily. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The Colorado Water Quality Control Commission unanimously reversed a controversial 2020 decision and added new pollution protections for the South Platte River and Clear Creek through metro Denver, citing a “compelling” campaign by environmental justice advocates who demanded the repeal.

The vote Tuesday adds new defenses for urban streams and culminates a two-year campaign by a broad coalition of conservation groups, racial and economic justice advocates and local, state and federal officials to overturn the 2020 ruling. That year’s ruling had said existing polluters could discharge more waste into the urban streams without new state anti-degradation reviews

Now those permitted polluters, including Metro Water Recovery and Molson Coors, will have to prove any new actions won’t further damage the Denver-area streams, where aquatic life is already troubled by runoff, pollution discharge and high temperatures.

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The hearings this week were the result of the commission previously agreeing to review arguments from its own staff and the outside coalition, including Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that their 2020 decision had essentially written off urban streams as hopeless. 

“This is a historic moment for Colorado. To my knowledge this is the first successful petition from an environmental or environmental justice group” to a state health agency, said Ean Tafoya, GreenLatinos Colorado state director. “Impacted communities are empowered, organized, and partnered with allies. We are committed to using every procedural tool and in every venue available to us to achieve environmental justice.”

Anti-degradation rules that will now apply to the stretches of the South Platte River and Clear Creek put those waters into the “reviewable” category. That rule says polluters seeking a new or renewed water quality permit must make a compelling argument that worsening the conditions of a stretch of river is an unavoidable part of an important economic development or civic improvement. 

They must offer this proof even if the given stretch of water is already better than EPA water quality minimums. The state rules effectively raise the floor of quality as a stream improves, and says those waters can’t be “degraded” below the new floor.

Decades of intense and expensive cleanup efforts on urban streams like the South Platte, including by Metro Wastewater, have improved water quality and given the river a chance at more fish, wildlife and recreation, the environmental advocates say. The state’s job is to keep pushing for even cleaner water, the environmental coalition who brought the petition said, not to clear the way for backsliding.

The commissioners Tuesday also scolded Molson Coors and others who had spent the hearing arguing against the new protections for stretches of Clear Creek, which passes the Golden brewery, and the South Platte River north of the Denver boundary. 

“I am offended that a company that makes its profit and markets its brand off the clean water of this state would work so hard to prevent protections for that clean water,” Commission Chair April Long said, before the final unanimous vote to upgrade the stretches of stream to “reviewable” waters.

Commissioner Jennifer Bock cited “compelling” testimony in favor of stronger protections that came Monday during the first day of a two-day hearing, from metro residents who use the South Platte River and Clear Creek for fishing, boating and cycling. 

Those users joined with the environmental coalition to argue the urban streams were abused for decades by polluters and developers who paved and contaminated the waterfront. The waters are now recovering and can come back even further if afforded the right protections, and neighbors of the streams say they deserve that chance. 

“The Water Quality Control Commission’s decision highlights that no river is beyond repair. These protections recognize decades of work to restore water quality on the South Platte and Clear Creek from the impacts of industrial pollution,” said Josh Kuhn, Conservation Colorado water campaign manager. “This is an important step toward ensuring all of Colorado’s communities have equitable access to clean water.” 

The initial 2020 decision, and a commissioner’s statement at the time that higher protections were reserved for “pristine mountain waters,” infuriated a coalition of dozens of conservation groups and local governments, from Colorado GreenLatinos to Trout Unlimited to Denver City Council members. They wrote to Gov. Jared Polis last year arguing that the statewide commission was “prioritizing industrial profits over the safety and well being of residents who have been historically disproportionately affected by pollution.”

When the commissioners late in 2021 agreed to set a hearing to revisit the decision, the commission staff told the advocacy groups it was the first time in their knowledge of the commission’s history that petitioners had successfully forced such a reversal.

Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: Twitter: @MBoothDenver