Denver nonprofit brings awareness to the 71-mile High Line Canal

Volunteers for the Platt Park organization give a helping hand

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Waves of long golden grass line the sidewalk where a group of volunteers recently walked a six-mile stretch of the High Line Canal, a 71-mile greenway that stretches from Southwest Littleton to Northeast Aurora. The trail winds through South Denver through Virginia Vale and the Cherry Creek Gold Club.

This particular stretch, between miles 66 and 61, is in Green Valley Ranch and gets less water than other portions of the trail.

Over the next few weeks, these volunteers will trek the entire trail. By walking the trail, volunteers can help the conservancy find points that need better signage or are interuppted by busy street crossings.

Connie Brown, a project coordinator with the South Pearl Street-based High Line Canal Conservancy who walked with the group on June 15, noted most of the people who use the area for recreational purposes tend to stay in their own bubble.

“So often, the canal backs up to communities and people's backdoors," she said. "You don't realize the breadth."

The trail has different types of plant life throughout, depending on how much water a certain area gets, Brown said. The walks, which are done in partnership with Walk2Connect, help introduce people to parts of the trail they wouldn't usually go to. It also helps the conservancy see which areas of the trail have better signage or are interrupted by busy street crossings.

Walk2Connect is a Denver-based business that brings people together to learn more about the places they live though organized walks. It uses walking movement leaders to oversee the walks throughout Denver and the Front Range.

Lisa Alonge, a walking movement leader with Walk2Connect, said this will be her third time doing the full canal trail. Two brass circles stamped with the number 71 hang from her backpack. The keychains are given to people who walk the whole trail.

At first, Alonge said she wasn't sure she wanted to do the trails as a walking leader.

“It was a little daunting,” she said. But “it becomes an intimate gathering.”

And the people she has met on the trail have inspired her to take other fitness leaps in her life, such as hiking the incline on Pikes Peak and walking a marathon.

Why collecting data is important

The conservancy first opened in 2014. It works with Denver Water as well as the individual municipalities the canal trails cross to make sure the area stays vibrant and accessible to the public. Josh Phillips, manager of community initiatives, said the nonprofit has a small staff that works out of its office at 915 S. Pearl St. The conservancy depends on volunteers to help with projects and outreach.

The volunteer program launched at the conservancy last year and 28 people worked with the nonprofit, Phillips said. This year, the High Line Canal Conservancy created several new volunteer programs for people to participate in over the summer. Wildlife and plant counts will help bring data back to the nonprofit, which is working to build a new master plan for the future of the canal. The walking programs help to bring interest to a historic area in Denver. A little over 17 miles of the trail system runs through Denver.

Over the summer, the conservancy is holding several BioBlitz events along different areas of the canal to get an approximate animal count. Gary Julsgard, a volunteer in the walking event, said he participated in similar animal counts that tracked geese in the city of Denver. While the events don't necessarily bring in a scientific count, Julsgard said, it helps people think about the impact animals have in the area.

The data shows "where animals live, how they live and how they interact with us,” he said. “It's a great way to get people out, looking and learning.”

The canal was first built in 1883 as an irrigation ditch, and was purchased by Denver Water in 1924. The organization still uses the ditch to provide irrigation water to about 70 customers. Jose Salas, a media relations specialist with Denver Water, said the organization only runs water for short periods of time through the canal from April to October. But that also depends on how much water the state receives.

“Once an engineering marvel, the canal is not an efficient means of delivering water. About 70 percent of the water seeps into the ground or evaporates before it reaches customers,” Salas said in an email. “In dry years, the canal's junior water right prohibits using the water at all.”

Enhancing an urban greenway

Denver Water opened the area to the public for recreation in 1970. The 71-mile trail runs through 11 different jurisdictions, Brown said. Each jurisdiction takes care of its portion of the trail.

Brown said that since she moved to Denver, she's been within walking or biking distance to the canal and that it acts as a “refuge within the city.” She hopes the conservancy can work to lessen breaks in the trail like busy street crossings.

“It would be so cool if you could walk 71 miles uninterrupted,” she said.

The master plan will also look at landscaping around the trail, including drought-tolerant plants and using storm water. Phillips said Denver Water will stop delivering water to the canal in the next few years. The conservancy's master plan is looking into retrofitting the canal to use storm water for other properties.

“We really want to understand how the ecology of the canal might change as storm water is introduced into the system,” Phillips said.

He added that retrofitting the canal for storm water use would be cheaper than building new storm water retention facilities. The conservancy is hoping that storm water will help keep the vegetation around the canal thriving.

John Hoesterey, a planning manager with the conservancy, described the canal as an urban greenway within the city and noted the master plan hopes to build on the resources the recreational trails already have.

“That's what we're really hoping to enhance and make the canal sing,” he said.

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