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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

Browse articles and find a flipbook of the magazine here.

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Water Education Colorado

Renaissance of an Urban River—Sand Creek

By Dan MacArthur

Egrets perform their elegant mating ballet while thousands of vehicles thunder by on the interstate overhead. Wary deer scatter before surprised cyclists cruising down a hard-packed trail. Odd chunks of concrete and twisted steel still poke between the grasses in some places—a reminder to visitors that this unlikely oasis from Denver's urban din is healthier today than it has been in a long time.

‘If you had asked anybody 15 years ago, they'd say it would never happen,’ says Kate Kramer, executive director of the Sand Creek Regional Greenway Partnership Inc.

Today, pockets of ecological integrity remain—a magnificent creekside gallery of native cottonwoods next to a truck stop, tremendous nightly gatherings of waterfowl at the confluence of the South Platte River, and winter eagle sightings in Aurora. But it was not long ago that Sand Creek was considered little more than a polluted ditch trickling intermittently through northeast Denver in a forbidding industrial landscape of oil refineries, landfills and highways.

When it became apparent that Stapleton Airport would be abandoned, ‘Suddenly everybody realized that there would be tremendous development,’ Kramer recalls. In addition to redevelopment of the Stapleton area, serious environmental problems in the watershed could no longer be ignored.

Oil and gasoline for years had been leaking into the creek from two adjoining Commerce City refineries. With Sand Creek flowing directly into the South Platte River, there were serious concerns about the potential for water supply contamination for thousands of downstream drinking and irrigation water users. Spurred by demands from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for the refineries to clean up their pollution, the timing was right for Sand Creek to undergo a major renaissance.

Making Changes
Fortunately for Sand Creek, in the early 1990s a few visionaries partnered with the cities of Aurora, Commerce City and Denver to initiate a watershed renovation. The concept was to construct a 13.5-mile Sand Creek Regional Greenway as the last link in a 50-mile trail loop in Denver's northeast quadrant, connecting the High Line Canal and the Platte River Greenway.

But beyond making that trail connection, those practical dreamers also saw an opportunity to start restoring the creek to its former glory. ‘Parts of Sand Creek were such an eyesore. It was worse than an eyesore,’ Kramer says, recalling river banks choked with trash and rusting culverts.

The restoration project was first suggested in 1991 as part of the Emerald Strands Plan—a planning effort conducted by the three cities and Adams and Arapahoe counties. Soon after, a concept plan developed by the Stapleton Foundation in 1993 helped garner financial support from the Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) conservation trust fund and the EPA, and allowed detailed project planning to start the following year.

Momentum to restore the watershed received a boost in 1997 when GOCO designated the greenway as a Legacy Project eligible for more substantial funding. GOCO initially provided $1.5 million to acquire land and construct trails, and has since provided another $2.75 million.

By 2002, a patchwork of trails linking the High Line Canal with the South Platte River was open to the public. Guiding the greenway construction and restoration efforts is a 30-member task force comprised of elected officials from the three partner cities, along with neighborhood associations, environmental organizations, non-profit groups and others, all under the auspices of the non-profit Sand Creek Regional Partnership Inc.

‘This is one of my two or three favorite projects in the state that we were involved in,’ says former GOCO Director John Hereford, currently a private consultant. ‘I think river restoration is the greatest thing GOCO can do.’

Hereford, who is now a member of the Sand Creek board of directors, says this greenway is so impressive because it was accomplished with cooperation among many jurisdictions. It also works on so many different levels—reclaiming a waterway, preserving open space, conserving wildlife habitat, and connecting communities with a transit corridor.

Kramer estimates all the components contained in the master plan will be completed in about five years depending on the availability of funds. But she notes that a project such as this is never entirely ‘done.’ For example, she said the partnership still hopes to acquire land to one day build a ‘signature park’ at the confluence with the South Platte River.

Of course, it all comes at a price. Construction of the entire Sand Creek Regional Greenway is currently estimated to cost some $21 million, according to Kramer. More than $12 million has been raised so far from a variety of sources. Donations have included materials and services valued at $2.5 million and easement donations valued at more than $750,000. At completion, it is estimated that the costs will be split about equally among the three partner cities, other public funds, and private foundations, businesses and individuals.

And that doesn't include the extensive water quality clean-up efforts ongoing at two oil refineries which straddle the creek in Commerce City. Originally constructed in the 1930s, both refineries now are owned by the Canada-based Suncor Energy Inc.

Suncor and the previous owners could have taken the cheap way out of cleaning up the refineries' petroleum pollution by simply putting the creek into a concrete channel—at a cost less than half of the $2 million it eventually spent. But Director of Environmental and Regulatory Affairs Constance Walker says that would have been contrary to Suncor's commitment to becoming a sustainable energy company concerned with economic, environmental and social issues.

‘There's a real business benefit to taking that balanced approach,’ she said.

So instead the creek was first moved 100 feet north, away from the polluted areas. Then a 2,000-foot underground slurry wall extending down to bedrock was installed to protect the creek from further pollution. In the end, Sand Creek was returned to its original channel which was reconstructed to replicate a natural creek bed.

‘When we diverted the creek, we promised we'd put it back where we found it and make it better,’ says Senior Remediation Adviser Greg Fletcher. That pledge included an ambitious ongoing revegetation program to help stabilize the creek banks with thousands of willows and native grasses.

Kramer says Suncor deserves praise for its exceptional commitment to environmental clean-up and the greenway.

‘They spent a lot more money doing the right thing,’ she says. ‘The investment they're making in that area is tremendous.’

Sand Creek has come a long way in a very short time. Its revitalization needs have been unique compared to many rural river restoration projects in Colorado. Although hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent creating new wetlands and riparian areas, river clean-up has also focused on mitigating industrial pollution and creating public access. Public awareness of the creek and enjoyment of its little treasures via the greenway trails will perhaps most powerfully ensure that this lively creek never again becomes an industrial dumping ground.

A Walk Along Sand Creek

Walking upstream from the confluence of Sand Creek and the South Platte River beneath the roar of Interstate 270, the creek maintains an unabashed industrial tone as it proceeds past the Metro Wastewater Reclamation facility in the shadow of the stacks of Xcel Energy's massive Cherokee electrical generating station. ‘We don't want to hide it,’ says Kramer. ‘This is where you are.’

The waterway then continues past two refineries in Commerce City—the same refineries that previously were the cause of petroleum leaks and serious water quality problems.

Just a little way farther down the trail, the industrial atmosphere is broken at the Pepper Riparian Area—a five-acre cottonwood haven reclaimed from a former landfill. Passing under railroad bridges and highways, the trail runs below the traffic noise level for much of this area allowing trail users to forget the urban rush and bustle.

The trail continues through a 20-acre wetland park reclaimed from another landfill before making its way toward the former Stapleton Airport. It is this segment that Kramer calls the real backbone of the greenway. ‘Sand Creek was ignored by the [Stapleton] airport operators, but with this new development, it is being recognized as a wonderful park,’ says Kramer.

Moving upstream through the three-mile Stapleton reach, the creekside landscape provides a distinct contrast of industrial and open space. Warehouses and former airport parking lots are interspersed with the 23-acre Urban Farm where city dwellers can learn about livestock and small-scale farming. Nearby, the creek flows underneath a massive old airport runway tunnel that ‘would be a great place to film a Mel Gibson action movie,’ according to Kramer. Not far away, the new homes of Stapleton are transforming this once-inaccessible stretch of creek into a valuable recreational amenity. A major park is planned at the confluence of Sand and Westerly creeks.

Farther east, the creek takes on a much more pastoral appearance as it passes by the Bluff Lake Nature Center, a 123-acre urban refuge for wildlife and native plants. Entering Aurora, the creek skirts the site of the former Fitzsimons Army Medical Center and intersects the 100-acre Sand Creek Park. The Stapleton and Aurora segments are increasingly being used by bicyclists commuting to work in these redeveloping employment centers, as well as people enjoying a walk, ride or run.

The American Hiking Society recently recognized the Sand Creek Greenway as one of the nation's top 10 fitness trails, and Better Homes and Gardens also praised the Greenway trail as an exceptional urban hike ‘boldly illustrating the dramatic contrasts of wildlife juxtaposed with an urban setting.’

That's an apt description, according to Kramer, who is still taken with the vitality of the wildlife she witnesses not far from the refineries that once fouled the creek. Grassy meadows, wetlands and groves of century-old cottonwoods offer a haven for coyotes, deer, beaver, foxes, muskrats, rabbits, snakes and frogs in addition to an abundance of hawks, owls and eagles.

Beyond Fitzsimons, a concrete channelized section of creek transitions into a true urban wilderness at the Star K Ranch, a 200-acre natural area and outdoor learning center. ‘It's an incredible natural preserve. This where you see the wildlife,’ says Kramer. ‘You can't believe you're in an urban setting.’ Here the High Line Canal owned and operated by Denver Water still carries water to Sand Creek, although the High Line's use is slowly diminishing as the utility seeks ways of more efficiently serving the few remaining canal users.

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