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A Most Peculiar River

By Allen Best | Photographs by Kevin Moloney

clear_creek_hw_web_70Westward travelers of the 19th century invariably found the South Platte River perplexing. Samuel Mallory, on seeing the river for the first time, dubbed it the most ‘peculiar river I ever saw. It is about a mile wide and runs with a rapid current, yet I can wade across it at any place, and I have never seen a place yet where it is four feet deep.’

Mallory, a former mayor of Danbury, Conn., made the observation on June 10, 1860, while on the way to the Colorado gold fields. The route along the river that spring was busy. The night before, said Mallory, a train of 27 mammoth wagons passed his party, probably near present-day Brush and Fort Morgan. Mallory and companions could already see snow-covered peaks.

Even then, the distant mountains were being remade. The Clear Creek Valley was the epicenter. Major discoveries of placer gold in 1859 confirmed the vast riches of gold near today's Idaho Springs and Central City. Quickly the landscape and its waterways were rearranged. Individual gold pans were abandoned in favor of lengthy wooden boxes into which teams of men—for this was a young man's game—shoveled dirt and gravel, all this then rinsed by streams of water to remove the lighter materials. Gravity flows were harnessed to create jets of water that blasted whole hillsides. It wasn't pretty, but that wasn't the point.

These two stretches of water, Clear Creek and the lower South Platte River, are studies in contrasts, both in their native states and in their evolving uses since 1860. Much shorter, Clear Creek is less than 60 miles from its headwaters along the flanks of the Continental Divide to its confluence with the South Platte. The creek's snow-melted waters tumble 8,000 feet and through volumes of Colorado history.

The history is evident even today: upended creeks strait-jacketed to make room for narrow-gauge trains and now broad roadways. Ochre mine dumps, looking like alpine anthills, dot the hillsides. Where Clear Creek issues onto the plains at Golden is the Coors Brewery, ‘brewed with pure Rocky Mountain spring water’ since 1873. Downstream farther yet, beyond residential neighborhoods, abandoned gravel pits, and industrial fabricators, are still a few fields, remnant truck farms in the hamlet of Welby, near the mouth of the creek, northeast of downtown Denver.
To this trio of uses—industrial, residential and agriculture—in recent years has been added a fourth: recreation. The centerpiece for this transformation is downtown Golden where the creek and its riparian banks had long been treated like a back alley.

Now gussied up with parks, walkways and benches, the creek is an amenity, a means to a different sort of beneficial use. By reconfiguring boulders, watercourse designers diverted the creek to achieve the maximum merriment of kayakers. At the core is a new kind of water right—which Golden obtained—dedicated to recreational flows. A novel concept, it was confirmed only in 2003, when a split Colorado Supreme Court allowed a lower court decision to stand. By that time the state legislature had adopted a recreational in-channel diversion statute.

The lower South Platte River since 1860 has a simpler, neater storyline. Almost exclusively, irrigators developed the lower river—from the confluence with the Poudre River, east of Greeley—during a spurt of ditch and reservoir building from about 1880 to 1910. Afterward came wells, their use proliferating with the spread of cheap electricity.

Industrialization is more sparse than along Clear Creek, and even then almost exclusively complementary to farms: a string of sugar beet factories built early in the 20th century—only one, at Fort Morgan, still operates—and since the late 1960s, meatpacking plants, a cheese factory and, at Sterling, an ethanol plant.

Mark Twain crossed this river near Julesberg in 1861, and he was unimpressed. ‘The Platte was 'up,' they said—which made me wish I could see it when it was down, if it could look any sicker and sorrier,’ he later wrote in ‘Roughing It.’ If not for the ‘sentinel rank of scattering trees standing on either bank,’ the river might be lost altogether, he wrote.
In other places along the lower river, trees were even more rare. ‘About noon we passed a cluster of 11 trees on the opposite side of the river—a welcome sight, these lonely cottonwoods!’ remarked E.H.N. Patterson in 1859 while journeying between Brush and Sterling. Wood was scarce. Travelers often burned dried bison dung for campfires.

Today, the grove of trees—in places a quarter mile wide—runs continuously along the South Platte, from Denver to Nebraska. Some argue that in the past saplings were trampled by the giant bison herds, but also by Native Americans who, enjoying the mobility of horses, were fast depleting their resources.

Year-round water flows are also sometimes cited as cause of these enlarged forests. Compact negotiator Delph Carpenter in the 1920s insisted that the aboriginal Platte bustled with high water in spring and then dried up from July through September from Fort Morgan to North Platte, Neb. That's possible, although Carpenter's archived notes suggest a less ironclad wet-and-dry assessment. His many correspondents could recall individual years, but not a blanket assessment. C.C. Hawley of Fort Collins, for example, testified to digging holes in the riverbed to get drinking water during the years 1863 and 1864.

Still, the evidence is clear that what Carpenter described as the ‘disappearing river’ has now become a ‘growing river.’ Part of the reason is the introduction of non-native water—more than 400,000 acre feet annually from the Western Slope, most from the Colorado River. According to Colorado Water Conservation Board figures, the Colorado-Big Thompson Project contributes an average 218,000 acre feet diverted annually, followed by 54,000 from Roberts Tunnel, and 52,000 from Denver's Moffat Tunnel collection system. Other contributors are the Grand River Ditch, 18,000; Laramie-Poudre Tunnel, 18,000; Aurora Homestake, 12,000; Michigan Ditch, 3,300; Wilson Supply Ditch, 1,500; Vidler Tunnel, 740; Straight Creek Tunnel, 460; Berthoud Pass Ditch, 350; Boreas Pass Ditch, 115; and Eureka Ditch, 42.

The return flows from irrigation may be even more significant in making the lower South Platte a steadier river. This return via mostly underground routes sometimes takes days, even years. The South Platte, wrote the late J.M. Dille in ‘Irrigation in Morgan County,’ is probably the ‘outstanding example in the West of 'return flow' development.’
Early efforts at ditch building were usually small. A notable exception was at Sterling, where a canal appropriation from 1873 irrigated 16,000 acres. Arrival of the railroads—the Union Pacific in 1881 and the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy in 1882—spurred the larger developments. With a wider market for their crops, Morgan County farmers built four of the six largest ditch systems in the 1880s.

Abner Baker was integral to these ditches. Born and reared in the Midwest, he fought in the Civil War, then became a salesman and a photographer. In 1870, although he knew nothing of irrigation, he decided to seek his fortune at Horace Greeley's new Union Colony. Journeying south from Cheyenne, he confided to his diary his first impression of the landscape. ‘There is nothing in the dry, sterile-looking plains to awaken enthusiasm in anyone,’ he wrote.

In time, Baker saw the prairie differently. At Union Colony, he learned quickly the mechanics of surveying and scraping out irrigation ditches. A decade later, he was ready to go out on his own. With the aid of three brothers in the 1880s, he helped create four major ditch systems from Wiggins to Brush, promoted creation of Fort Morgan and helped establish Morgan County. He died at age 54, his full ambitions still unrealized, but he had created the foundation for what local boosters called one of the nation's most bounteous agricultural precincts. The ‘cheerless’ and ‘monotonous’ plains so often lamented by travelers were changing rapidly.

Corn and alfalfa, both vital as feed for cattle and other livestock, was the new irrigation economy's primary product. Sugar beets soon became another source of cash. The last major piece of the supply puzzle was the 1906 decision to construct Empire Reservoir. With an extended Bijou Ditch, an additional 40,000 acres around Fort Morgan was irrigated.

‘Verily, eerily the boom is on, and Fort Morgan is now going forward by leaps and bounds,’ gushed the Fort Morgan Times. Empire's storage with two other reservoirs, Riverside and Jackson, created a capacity of more than 130,000 acre feet. Most ditches are operated in tandem with reservoirs. There are six major ditches in the Fort Morgan-Brush area.

Farther downstream, three reservoirs—Prewitt, North Sterling and Julesburg—serve lands in Logan and Sedgwick counties. The trio began to fill in the early 1900s. Joe Frank, general manager of the Lower South Plate Water Conservancy District, said the population of Logan County more than doubled in the decade after the reservoirs were completed. Along with ditches, the reservoirs helped establish an irrigated corridor reaching east to the Colorado-Nebraska line.

Jim Yahn, secretary-manager of the North Sterling Irrigation District, said the lower South Platte now has water during times of the year it wouldn't naturally, the result of return flows from Denver and other points upstream. This sequence of water flowing from one city downstream to farms and other cities or towns also means generally the farther the river goes, the later the water was appropriated.

‘At Julesburg, having an 1890's water right is still a good right, whereas in Denver if you have that right, it's not worth nearly as much,’ he said, referring to Colorado's first in time, first in right doctrine. ‘The return flows are what made that happen. What created the return flows were the ditch companies.’

Wells are the final element in lower South Platte irrigation. First used broadly in the 1930s, their use spread again—mostly to provide water to finish crops—in response to a mid-1950s drought. From the start, some thought the water produced by wells came from the same source as the river itself. For decades, supporting evidence accumulated, showing a farmer could, by drawing well water, reduce the flows available to other and usually senior downstream water right owners.

In the 1969 the state legislature acted to protect the rights of senior appropriators. Not until the drought of 2002, as crops withered for lack of water, did the other shoe drop.

In the Empire Lodge case of 2001, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled the State Engineer did not have the authority to approve temporary substitute water supply plans for augmentation. The plans replace water to the aquifer or the river as necessary to protect senior water rights from injury, when a junior well or surface diversion intercepts water that those senior rights would otherwise receive. During the 2002 drought, ditch companies and cities complained that wells were pumping illegally. They took the matter to court and won.

Then early in 2003, a new state law required well owners to file a permanent augmentation plan in water court. Several owners could not find enough water to make up for what they pumped, or depleted, and were either substantially curtailed or forced to stop pumping. The result: Growers dried up large tracts of land.

In recent years, water providers along the urbanized Fort Range corridor between Parker and Greeley purchased water rights from lower South Platte irrigators to meet downstream obligations while retaining water from upstream sources. Shares in Weldon Valley Ditch Co., Morgan County's oldest with a priority date from 1881, escalated in value by 600 percent between 1998 and 2008, reports secretary Eric Christensen. ‘And that interest isn't coming from agriculture,’ he said.

The story of Clear Creek from its mining days forward is more tangled, and always shadowed by environmental degradation.

‘Gravel, sand, boulders, rocks—not one stone left upon another; not one where Nature put it,’ observed James Meline in 1866 after traveling from Golden to Black Hawk. Mining quickly moved underground, following lodes to the source of gold and, in later years, silver and molybdenum. This, in turn, necessitated stamp mills to reduce ores and, with the aid of cyanide, arsenic and mercury, extract the gold and silver. By 1860, more than 150 mills already existed in the Clear Creek Valley, polluting the creeks without restraint. These tainted waters were also muddied, as whole hillsides of trees were rapidly felled to gain wood for mine props, corduroyed roads, charcoal and, of course, heating.

From downstream came complaints. In 1880, the Golden Weekly Globe reported that quality of town water was ‘seriously objectionable.’ A tincture of iron was so strong, added the newspaper, to make the water useless for washing. Farmers were also dissatisfied. One irrigator claimed his 10 acres were so severely defiled that not even weeds would grow.

In 1882, irrigators traveled to Central City to negotiate changes. They got little sympathy and fewer concessions. One operator said his 25 mills expended only two ounces of potassium cyanide every 24 hours. His livestock, he said, drank the mill water without injury. Gregory M. Silkensen, in a history of the Farmers' High Line Canal and Reservoir Co., said irrigators were unwilling to directly challenge miners, who then stood at the head of Colorado's economy. A 1930s lawsuit yielded a Colorado Supreme Court decision that pollution was not a right—even if remediation made mining uneconomical. Even then, a court victory was one thing, and enforcement quite another—a task state government had not then assumed.

Changes came after World War II. Cleanup of the mines upstream began, and the creek—devoid of fish since 1859—was stocked, and the river's purpose changed. As in the lower South Platte, a major use had been irrigation, with the first ditch incised in 1859. Soon after, several major canals emanated from the Golden area, fanning onto adjoining highlands, allowing productive cultivation of crops, orchards and vegetable farms. As in the lower South Platte, reservoirs are crucial to the ditches from Clear Creek. Largest of the reservoirs is Standley Lake, located in Westminster, near 88th and Kipling. From here, water is distributed to Denver's northern suburbs and even to ever-more-scarce farms west of Brighton. Administration is by the Farmers Reservoir and Irrigation Co.

Instructive in this process is Arvada. Founded in 1870, the town at the end of World War II had a population of 1,500 people, mostly clustered near 57th and Wadsworth. Its population now exceeds 100,000, with 20 percent of its water coming from Clear Creek. Even today, some sidewalks are lined by ditches used for lawn irrigation, a remnant of the 19th century infrastructure. Clear Creek currently provides drinking water for up to 350,000 people in the northern metropolitan area.

Pollution cleanup continued. In 1983 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established a Superfund study area. At issue were the 1,300 mostly abandoned small mines. Of special consideration was Idaho Spring's Argo Mine and Mill, from which a 4.16-mile tunnel continued to produce 700 pounds of pollutants daily. A treatment plant now eliminates that pollution. The Clear Creek Watershed Foundation was formed in 1991 to further advance the effort.
But the work is not done. John Woodling, a former state fisheries biologist now with Trout Unlimited, said roads, particularly Interstate 70, along with phosphorous and nitrogen-rich water released from seven sewage treatment plants in the upper basin, continue to degrade Clear Creek. What he finds amazing, he said, is that the river has actually prospered—a few years ago a 21-inch brown trout was snagged in Clear Creek Canyon.

At Golden, the revitalized Clear Creek is more than nice. It's also a story of money. This, said water attorney Glenn Porzak, who represented the city in arguing for recreational flows, was always part of the calculus. ‘Before, there was a high vacancy rate in the downtown area, and once they cleaned up that corridor, it completely switched things around.’

From Golden, bicycle and pedestrian paths extend 20 miles along Clear Creek, downstream to its confluence with the South Platte. In places, with narrowed vision, the settings can be bucolic, even pastoral. Shift your gaze 5 degrees, though, and electrical transmission lines, warehouses and highway pillars come into sight. For much of its course, Clear Creek remains part of metropolitan Denver's back alley.

HWSPMultimedia Extras

 Scott Hummer

View photos and listen to Water Commissioners Scott Hummer and Brent Schantz describe their work.

View the water administration issue online.

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