After 10 years, a finished study offers improvements on the South Platte

The projects need approval and funding before starting

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Two years ago, Overland resident Ronnie Crawford put together the first neighborhood float down the South Platte River. As a board member of Denver Trout Unlimited, Crawford is a regular at the river and can be found throwing in a line for any of its 10 species of fish.

Because of his experience in the water, he knows that the timing for a river float has to be just right — when the spring run-off comes down from the mountains and raises the water level by a few feet.

But this year, the water level never came up.

“The snow melt was so early and so prolonged that it never really raised the river,” Crawford said.

While Crawford said he has seen fewer tubers and kayakers in the river this summer, the low water levels also affect the fishing community. Denver Trout Unlimited acts as a resource for fishers, providing temperature monitoring and keeping people up-to-date on factors impacting fish in the river.

Many of the fish in the South Platte, which starts in Douglas county and flows through Colorado into Nebraska where it joins the North Platte, enjoy cool and deep waters. When the water level is low, the river moves more slowly, Crawford said. Lower depths and less speed mean the sun has more time to warm up the water. Warmer water also means more moss.

A restoration study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could help alleviate some of these problems. The study is looking at adding water depth, giving the river more variety and habitat space for animals through $397 million worth of projects.

Creating more depth to the river will hopefully bring in more water, which Crawford believes will be a benefit to the community.

“Everything’s richer if there’s more water,” he said.

Realizing the dream

Jeff Shoemaker, executive director of The Greenway Foundation, sees the restoration plan as the next iteration of cleaning up the South Platte.

The Greenway Foundation was formed in 1974 by Shoemaker’s father, Joe, nine years after the city had witnessed one of the worst floods in its history in 1965. During the flood, the Platte rose, bringing a tidal wave to Denver that destroyed bridges and covered the city in mud and debris.

For years before the flood, the city had used the Platte as its literal dumping grounds, Shoemaker said. Landfills lined the river bank, and property values close to the Platte dropped, compared to the surrounding area. The flood was a turning point for the city. Shoemaker said his father’s dream was to make the Platte the city’s economic driver and a place where people would flock to for recreation.

“It’s important to remember, when I was just 10 years old, this river was a flowing sewer,” Shoemaker said. “Everybody thought (my dad) was crazy.”

But after more than 40 years, the dream has been realized, Shoemaker said. Property values along the river are up, and Confluence Park, the foundation’s first project, completed in 1975, is one of the most used in the city.

Completion a decade away

Back in 2008, The Greenway Foundation lobbied Adams County leaders to try and expand the opportunity for a study by the Army Corps on that portion of the Platte. The expansion of the study now covers the river from 58th Avenue to 6th Avenue in Denver.

The river has been cut into six different sections, in which the Corps looked at the depth of the river, flooding issues, recreation access and the ecosystem as a whole. While the study has some flood mitigation benefits, it primarily looked at habitat restoration.

In August, the Corps took public comments as the final part of the study. It will now cycle through the chain of command before being included in a final report, which will go to Congress. The Corps is hoping to have this process done in time to be included in the Water Resources Development Act in 2020.

The Greenway Foundation has been contracted by the city to help implement projects from the Corps restoration study. Shoemaker said that will likely come in the form of seeking out funding. The $397 million price tag is an estimate based on the full scope of the study. The final report may recommend certain projects over others in his final report, Shoemaker said. During the design phase, the government will cover 75 percent of costs and in the construction phase it will cover 65 percent.

In all, Shoemaker estimated it will be about 10 years before projects from the study see completion, calling it a “marathon effort.”

But continued work on the river is just the next phase for the foundation: For Shoemaker, the work is never done.

“It’s really become something that I never envisioned it would be,” he said. “This foundation has accelerated the rebirth of our city’s greatest natural resource.”

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