Archive for November, 2015

Snowpack: Here today, gone tomorrow?

A recent study finds that climate change means less water from melting snow. So what are we doing about it?

By Kim Unger

snowpack measure winter park

Denver Water employees stationed in Winter Park take measurements of snowpack in 2014.

Denver Water’s extensive reservoir system helps us monitor water supplies, even as a new climate change study warns of a shrinking snowpack.

A recent study from the Earth Institute at Columbia University found that the snowpack in the Northern Hemisphere has a 67 percent risk of declining — greatly reducing the amount of drinking water available from that source.

The study focused on river basins that rely on snowpack and are not adequately replenished by rainwater. The study identified the Colorado River basin among those at high risk for greatly reduced snowpack in the future, when demand for water will outpace availability. The river provides water to seven states, including Colorado.

As worrisome as that sounds, the study doesn’t provide a complete picture of how climate change may affect Denver’s water supplies, said Laurna Kaatz, Denver Water’s climate adaptation program manager.

She isn’t raising any alarm bells.

“This study is a big picture look at how sensitive systems are to different conditions,” Kaatz said. “It’s not a deep examination into the full range of possible climate changes Colorado could experience in the future.” Nor does it dive into how water managers in Colorado are contending with those potential changes.

“We have to consider all of the local variables in our planning,” she said.

Those variables include population growth, how efficiently customers use water, environmental and ecosystem needs, and local climate and weather patterns.

Denver Water’s supply is mostly from snowpack. The snowpack — the total amount of ice and snow on the ground — fluctuates from year to year. In warm, dry years, it can be gone by mid-summer; in wet years it can last through the next winter season.

“Our region experiences huge fluctuations — or variability — in weather and climate conditions,” Kaatz said. “Fluctuations, especially in precipitation, mean that the rivers and streams that supply our water are also highly variable. This is why reservoirs are so important in Colorado. Colorado’s high peaks protect the snow for months out of the year, and our strong reservoir system protects our water supply against seasonal and annual variability.”

Making sure water is available when customers need it requires careful management of how water flows in and out of reservoirs. Kaatz explained, that when the snowpack melts, we capture what we need and store it for future use. In years of drought, reservoir levels go down, and customers need to be even more conscious of water use.

Denver Water works with the scientific community to stay up-to-date on the latest models and trends because we live in such a variable climate.

“As the climate continues to warm, we do anticipate that snowpack will not live as long into the summer and fall months, especially in warm, dry summer and fall seasons, and that variability will increase,” Kaatz said. “At Denver Water, we plan for the long-term and look at the many different challenges we could be up against in the future, including climate change.”

While the study gives a potential glimpse into our water future, the full story is really told in how well Coloradans have embraced water conservation. Per capita water use among Denver Water customers hit a 50-year low in May, a savings of 2 billion gallons compared to recent years.

9 reasons we’re giving thanks this Thanksgiving

Water you thankful for?

By Jimmy Luthye

With Thanksgiving upon us, we didn’t feel right stuffing our faces without first sharing some of the things that made us most thankful this year.

 

1. Bountiful fills and spills.

Waterton_Canyon_Strontia

We had a lot of water this year, especially early. Three of our reservoirs set record highs in May, with a fourth recording its second highest total in history. Wetter is better.

 

2. Our water system looks like this.

Dillon_August_2010 005

Dillon Reservoir. ’Nuff said.

 

3. Turns out, it’s easy to do Thanksgiving without wasting water.

Turkey photo iStock cropped

[Photo credit: iStockphoto.com/NWphotoguy]

We’re thankful to have so many tips to enjoy the holiday while saving water. For instance, thaw your frozen turkey in the refrigerator — not under running water. Read and learn, as I have.

 

4. Nature.

close up

We’re thankful we live in a place where we balance human needs and those of the animal world. And we’re thankful the public remained patient and safe during the recent extended closure of Waterton Canyon due to increased bear activity.

 

5. Mmm … Brisk, mineral and grassy.

kelly and michael

In a bizarrely worded taste test in Rodale’s Organic Life magazine, we’re certainly thankful our water was named among the top 10 tastiest in the nation. To top it off, Michael Strahan and Busy Philipps tasted our water on Live with Kelly and Michael! Not too shabby.

 

6. We have some insanely dedicated employees.

water main guy

[GIF credit to Greg Dutra, FOX 31 Denver]

He’s not just showing off for the cameras, folks. Our employees are constantly out busting their tails to make sure the water keeps flowing, and everyone can be thankful for that. It was never more evident than at about 3 a.m. on Oct. 22, when three water main breaks happened almost simultaneously around the Denver area. And we’re especially grateful to the employees who will be working this Thanksgiving Day to keep the water flowing for all of our holiday celebrations.

 

7. The Great Divide … Have you seen it yet?

IMG_3345

This film came at a critical juncture for water in the West. It’s one of the most important films of the year, and we’re thankful for Havey Productions for their tireless efforts in creating it. Seriously. See it. Here are some ways to do so. Also, check out our film review here and watch our employee reactions here.

 

8. These moose.

moose

What’s better than a moose on your porch? A bunch of moose on your porch, of course! Thank you, moose. And a huge thank you to our mountain caretakers (and their families) — like Per Olsson at Jones Pass near Winter Park who took this photo — for their dedication to keeping the water flowing in the heart of the Colorado wilderness.

 

9. You, our customers.

thank you dog

[Image powered by Giphy.com]

Most important, we are thankful for you, our customers, who continue to trust us to deliver you high-quality water. We’re committed to continue doing so and thank you for your commitment to continue using it wisely. It is, after all, our most precious resource.

 

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

turkey day

[Image credit: Ethan Barnowsky, powered by Giphy.com]

 

Related story: Our party starts now by Dana Strongin.

A sure sign of winter: Closing up the Morning Glory spillway

Capping the summer maintenance season at Dillon Reservoir takes expert work crews, planning — and a really big plug.

The 6-ton steel plug is carefully placed into the Morning Glory spillway at Dillon Reservoir

The 6-ton steel plug is carefully placed into the Morning Glory spillway at Dillon Reservoir

By Matt Wittern

How do you keep debris and cold temperatures from damaging a giant spillway that measures 15 feet in diameter and features a more than 200-foot drop?

Get a really big plug.

That’s what happened on Nov. 6, when Denver Water crews placed a 6-ton steel plug into the Morning Glory spillway at Dillon Reservoir. The annual activity marks the end of summer and signals the start of winter maintenance season, when Dillon Dam’s caretakers focus on maintenance of the structure’s interior facilities.

The plug serves a primary and secondary function — first, it prevents cold air from entering the spillway, which could damage the outlet works and take hours of manual labor to melt the ice that builds up. It also helps prevent chunks of ice and snow from falling into the spillway and crashing more than 200 feet below.

The plug helps prevent chunks of ice and snow from falling into the spillway.

The plug helps prevent chunks of ice and snow from falling into the spillway.

Timing of the operation varies from year to year, though the rule of thumb is to do it when the reservoir’s water level is at least four feet below the crest of the spillway.

“That way, we have time to get back in here and remove the plug should we get sudden, unexpected inflows,” said Rick Geise, caretaker at Dillon Reservoir.

The cap was placed using a mobile crane provided and crewed by Terry’s Crane and Rigging out of Salida, Colorado; the company has provided this service to Denver Water for more than 15 years. Denver Water employees Rick Geise, Donald McCreer and Nate Hurlbut assisted, overseen by dam and hydropower plant supervisor John Blackwell.

“One of the best things about Dillon’s operations is its complexity. My team and I are involved in so many different types of projects that our job is never boring,” said Blackwell. “With good planning and the ability to adapt, projects like this one are not necessarily difficult — especially when you have a crew who are experts in performing their tasks safely and efficiently like we do here.”

Come early spring, Blackwell, the crane and crew will be back again to pull the plug, signaling the start of the summer maintenance season, where the dam’s crews will focus on larger capital improvement projects to keep the facility in tip-top condition.

1

A view of the spillway cap installation from Dillon Dam.

A trip underground, into The Twilight Zone

You’ve probably never heard of Denver Water’s vaults, much less seen one. Neither had I. Until now.

By Jimmy Luthye

 

Vault.

The word itself evokes a sense of hidden mystery and intrigue. Naturally, I was surprised to find out about hundreds of Denver Water “vaults” buried underground throughout our service area. When I asked around, it seemed many of my colleagues also knew very little about these creepy little structures.

There was only one way to find out, and since I’m the new guy, it was up to me to delve into the dark corners of this hair-raising topic.

This photo shows a recently upgraded Denver Water vault.

This photo shows a recently upgraded Denver Water vault.

Here’s what I learned:

  • Vaults are underground structures designed to give Denver Water crews a quick access point to water pipelines that send fresh water to homes, businesses, parks, golf courses and other locations in Denver and the suburbs we serve. With this easy access, crews are able to control water pressure, relay information and make adjustments on the fly.
  • Denver Water has a stable, yet aging infrastructure, and many of these vaults need upgrades (these are already underway).

Mark Almond, project manager for Denver Water’s vault projects, is leading the charge to improve these pivotal access points, helping them last far into the future.

Throwing caution to the wind, Mark agreed to take us underground into a yet-to-be upgraded vault. And thanks to video, you get to come along for the ride. As Rod Serling liked to say, “You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas.”

You’ve just crossed over into … THE TWILIGHT ZONE (na na na na, na na na na).

 

Contributing: Steve Snyder

Tapping into the truth about (non-bottled) water

PepsiCo got ripped for using tap water in Aquafina bottles, but not because it’s bad for you. Especially in Denver.

By Jimmy Luthye

At Denver Water, we make it our business to keep up with the latest water news, locally and around the world.

20ozbottle

PepsiCo uses rigorously-filtered tap water in Aquafina bottles. Photo credit: Aquafina.com

One item that crossed our desk was this so-called PepsiCo “scandal.” The soft-drink giant has been taking its share of abuse lately after executives at Aquafina — owned by PepsiCo — admitted taking tap water (gasp!) and sending it through their rigorous, state-of-the-art purification process.

Well, duh. Forty-five percent of all bottled water in the United States comes from the tap.

This story has been in and out of the news for over a decade. You may recall:

Frankly, the attacks are silly and a little offensive to us, as we are proud providers of tasty tap water to 1.3 million people.

So why no love for tap water, despite all the taste tests, exhaustive water quality analyses and countless studies proving tap water is perfectly clean and safe?

In the water utility world, many of us have taken a fairly hard stance in favor of tap water, at the expense of bottled water. At Denver Water, we even threw down the bottled vs. tap gauntlet this summer. To recap:

  • Tap water is every bit as safe as bottled water.
  • Bottled water costs almost 3,000 times as much as tap water.
  • Many bottled water companies, such as PepsiCo and Coca-Cola use tap water. (Coke somehow avoided the attacks on PepsiCo, even though the company does the same thing.)
  • Denver Water’s water is sampled 16,000 times and undergoes 66,000 tests per year to ensure it remains of the highest quality.
  • On average, Denver Water customers pay less than $3 for every 1,000 gallons of water.
tap water

Tap water must adhere to more regulations than bottled water. Photo credit: Alex Anlicker, Wikimedia Commons

And let’s not forget about those bottles. According to Brita, Americans drink about 48 billion (with a B!) bottles of water each year — enough to stretch around the planet 230 times. That’s quite a few plastic bottles, which are terrible for the environment.

OK, so we’re admittedly a little passionate about our local water. But, we also know that bottled water serves an invaluable purpose around the world and in times of crisis, especially when water is scarce or unsafe. We even provide bottled water to our own customers during emergencies that create extended water shortages.

But, when the water is clean, tap water is hardly something to avoid. In fact, particularly in Denver, it should be celebrated as one of the greatest achievements in the history of human civilization.

Not exaggerating.

Flying high with the Thunderbirds

A Denver Water employee’s stint with the U.S. Air Force’s elite squadron

By Dave Gaylinn

Jim Dye in the cockpit of a Thunderbird performing an engine run.

Jim Dye in the cockpit of a Thunderbird performing an engine run.

For many aviation enthusiasts, watching the Thunderbirds soar through the sky is a bucket list item. So in honor of Veterans Day, we’re proud to highlight one of our own who had a front-row seat as a member of this elite aerial demonstration team.

Today, Jim Dye is the system manager of Operations & Maintenance support services, where he oversees Denver Water’s inventory and vehicle operations, as well as trade shops and environmental compliance. But Denver Water is Dye’s second profession; he spent the first 30 years of his career with the U.S. Air Force. During his service, he was responsible for keeping the Thunderbirds in the sky by performing maintenance on the jets.

He is proud to say that in 62 years of the team performing, the Thunderbirds have never canceled an air show because of maintenance issues.

Dye enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1985, and 10 years into his service he was selected to be a member of the Thunderbirds, the Air Force’s elite aerial demonstration team.

The Thunderbirds tour the U.S. and the world performing aerobatic formations and solo flying in specially marked aircraft. The team not only entertains spectators, but also helps the Air Force recruit the next generation of fliers.

As a member of the Thunderbirds, Dye traveled about 265 days a year around the world. Many performances blur together, but Dye remembers one as particularly rewarding.

“We did a tour in Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union,” said Dye. “We did Romania, Bulgaria and Slovenia. It was absolutely amazing to go into the former Soviet Union. We were the first U.S. military to be in there. (The people) absolutely went nuts.”

Among his other favorite stops with the Thunderbirds were performances at Cheyenne Frontier Days. Dye enjoyed his visits to Cheyenne and made many friends there. His last Air Force assignment, before retiring in 2014, was in Cheyenne as the operations superintendent overseeing 150 nuclear missiles in Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska.

Jim Dye about to land for one of his deployments in Afghanistan.

Jim Dye about to land for one of his deployments in Afghanistan.

When not keeping the Thunderbirds running high in the sky, Dye served several tours in the Middle East in support of every operation since the first Gulf War in 1991. He said he would pack his bags in a second and deploy again if given the opportunity — he misses the camaraderie.

Recently, Dye was selected to the Thunderbirds’ alumni board of directors for a three-year term. In this role, he helps maintain the team’s traditions, keeps up communication with alumni and schedules biennial reunions. “I’m one of seven board members who run the alumni association,” he said. “There’s a balance of taking care of the alumni while taking care of the current team.”

While Denver Water’s equipment may not reach speeds of 700 miles per hour, Dye is still trying to break barriers. He manages 12 different departments at Denver Water, including the warehouse, trade shops, fleet operations and environmental compliance.

When he’s not on the clock, Dye enjoys hunting and fishing. “Alaska really spoiled me for fishing, though,” he laughed. Most of all, Dye enjoys spending time with his wife, Michelle, and their five children, ranging in age from 12 to 25.

He clearly wasn’t looking for a slow-paced retirement from the Air Force. “It’s just not in my DNA (to relax),” said Dye. “It’s been this way since I was 18. Go, go, go.”

Jim Dye proudly showing off a steelhead fish he caught in Yakutat, Alaska.

Jim Dye proudly showing off a steelhead fish he caught in Yakutat, Alaska.

Does your water bill seem high? You’re not alone.

 There’s a lot of chatter out there about ‘unusually high’ water bills. We found out why.

By Travis Thompson

Water bills seem to be the talk of the town.

Neighbors are complaining about higher-than-normal water bills in community forums like Nextdoor and Facebook. There have even been news stories on the topic, including one from 9News last week featuring one of our customers.

Many people along the Front Range are asking, “Why is my bill so high?”

It’s a fair question. And since we’re your water department, it’s on us to give you a fair answer. Here’s what we learned:

Stacy - through Sep 2015

Real customer’s water use through September.

Water bills were significantly higher this September compared to last September. Why?

Short answer: The weather.

Your water bill includes a chart detailing your water use, month-by-month, for the past year. Look at September 2014; it was an abnormally low water-use month. In fact, September 2014 saw the second-lowest total treated water volume since 1976 for that month. (September 2013, with its historic rain, ranked first.)

But 2015 was different. We had record rainfall in the spring, and customers used a lot less water than normal. In fact, single family residential water use was down 51 percent in June and 36 percent in July from our 2008-2013 baseline averages. See our story, “Water, water everywhere.”

In August, water use remained slightly below average. Then September and October arrived, and were much warmer than normal — September was even the warmest on record. Because of this, single family residential customer water use rose 6 percent and 23 percent from the average for those months.

And if you actually compare this September with September 2014, single family residential water use was 44 percent higher.

Higher water use, higher water bill.

But some customers apparently aren’t buying the weather explanation. On social media, some said they thought their water meters weren’t working. So we checked on that, too.

We read the meters all the time, and we’ll actually stop by your home and examine your meter if you think there’s an issue. Our testing and routine maintenance on our meters shows that less than 1 percent of them fail.

Even if there are issues with the automatic reader on your meter, like a dead battery or faulty wiring, the meter will continue to read consumption, and we can use that to get the correct reading.

In September, 160 customers reported higher-than-normal water bills. Here’s what our investigation turned up:

  • We found a water leak in 65 of these homes. Leaks will drive up your bill. Of those, we found 29 toilet leaks and 26 leaks in the irrigation system.
  • Another 31 customers were simply running their sprinkler systems too long. We urged them to use this tool to create a zone-by-zone schedule and dial-in their irrigation requirements.
  • Many of the homes had old, inefficient fixtures, and we helped customers make simple, water-saving upgrades. You’d be surprised what you save by replacing toilet flappers, showerheads and faucet aerators, not to mention Denver Water’s rebate program for upgrading to qualifying WaterSense-labeled toilets.

In many cases, we discovered multiple factors for higher bills, but all of them were easy fixes to get the customer back on the right track. If you think your bill is too high, you can conduct your own self-audit.

Stacy - through Oct 2015

Same customer’s water use through October.

 OK, so when will it get better?

Water bills will soon return to normal, but we’re not out of the woods quite yet.

This month, you’ll be receiving your water bills reflecting October use. Because October was warm, many customers didn’t winterize their irrigation systems when they typically would, thus extending the watering season. So for many customers, those October bills will also reflect a higher water use than the year before.

Fortunately, the snow is here and watering season is over, which will create a more stable bill reflecting only indoor water use.

One last thought

While some of the conversations we saw on social media weren’t exactly positive about Denver Water, we’re actually happy to see that customers are looking at their bills and paying close attention to their water use.

After all, understanding your own water use is a great way to help you realize how efficiently you are using our most precious resource — or what you can do better.

Interested in learning more about your own water history? Register through Denver Water Online and view up to two years of your water use.

Just make sure to factor in the weather.

 

 

 

The rains we claim aren’t always on the plains

How much precipitation did we get last year? The answer can be confusing — because of three simple letters.

By Steve Snyder

Here’s a quick quiz: What three things are critical to both precipitation monitoring and real estate? The answer is an old joke: location, location, location!

October marked the beginning of our new water year, so now is a natural time for us to look back and ask how much rain fell in the previous year. But when it comes to Denver Water’s service area, which includes more than 300 square miles, there isn’t one simple response. It all depends on your location.

“Our service area covers a large geographic region, and weather patterns can differ across that area,” said Lindsay Weber, demand planner for Denver Water. “For example, if it’s raining in Wheat Ridge, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s raining in Greenwood Village.”

And when it comes to rainfall, every drop counts. Our customers need to know how much moisture fell on their landscapes courtesy of Mother Nature so they can make good decisions about how much to supplement their irrigation with the water we provide.

Weather station

The National Weather Service uses a weather station like this one to record Denver’s official temperature, wind and precipitation measurements.

But that information sometimes comes with a caveat, thanks to three simple letters: DIA.

The National Weather Service’s official monitoring station for Denver is at Denver International Airport, or “DIA,” which is about 18 miles northeast of downtown Denver. Sitting on the wide-open plains of eastern Colorado, DIA is part of Denver and our service area, but the differences in temperature and moisture recorded there vary significantly from where most of us live and work.

“We know DIA is not necessarily representative of the weather conditions many of our customers see,” Weber said. “However, since DIA is the official monitoring station for the National Weather Service, those results are what the public hears about much more often.”

Denver Water uses an average from multiple weather stations to give us a better picture of how much precipitation falls in our service area during any given year. We use the numbers from those stations to plan for short-term and long-term supply and demand needs.

“It’s important that people take the reports from DIA’s monitoring station with a grain of salt,” Weber said. “Customers should pay close attention to the weather patterns in their particular part of the city when it comes to tailoring their landscape’s irrigation needs. One size does not fit all in this case.”

Denver Water provides a number of tools to help customers water their landscapes efficiently. But understanding precipitation for your location is ultimately the foundation for effective irrigation. (Now let’s see them make a song using that line!

This graph illustrates the variability between the rainfall at DIA and the rest of the Denver Water service area.

This graph illustrates the variability between the rainfall at DIA and the rest of the Denver Water service area.

Good for drivers, bad for the Fraser River

Sand keeps cars safe but clogs river; Denver Water and state crews team up to scoop 2,000 tons of sediment.

By Jay Adams

 

 

The Fraser River is showing signs of recovery, thanks to an ongoing project that has removed nearly 2,000 tons of sand and sediment from the water in the past three years.

CDOT crews scooped 520 tons of sediment out of Denver Water's settling pond near Winter Park Ski Resort.

CDOT scooped 520 tons of sediment out of Denver Water’s settling pond near Winter Park in October.

It has become an annual routine for Colorado Department of Transportation crews in Grand County. In the winter, they spread traction sand on Berthoud Pass to keep the winding highway safe for cars. In the fall, the same crews scoop out sand that migrates into the river.

Keeping both drivers and water safe has been a high-country dilemma for decades.

“We see 300 to 400 inches of snow a year, so traction sand is a must,” said Andy Hugley, CDOT maintenance superintendent.

There is one major consequence of keeping the road safe. “Sanding the pass is good for cars, but it’s bad for the river,” added Kevin Urie, Denver Water environmental scientist.

Urie said traction sand collects on the side of the highway and washes down the mountain during the spring runoff, harming the aquatic habitat while clogging pipes and filters at downstream water treatment facilities.

The Fraser River is critical to Grand County’s water supply and tourism, especially fly-fishing. That’s why removing traction sand is so important according to Kirk Klancke, Trout Unlimited Colorado River headwaters chapter president and former president of the East Grand Water Quality Board.

“When it comes to traction sand, fish don’t like it, bugs don’t like it,” Klancke said. “When you cover up the rocks where the bugs live, the bugs die, and the trout disappear because their food source is gone.”

Denver Water's diversion pond before sediment was removed in October. The diversion pond was redesigned to capture traction sand.

Denver Water’s diversion pond before excavation in October, 2015. The pond was redesigned to capture traction sand.

This fall, CDOT removed about 520 tons of sediment from a Denver Water diversion pond located on the river across from the Mary Jane entrance to the Winter Park Ski Resort. The pond was originally built as part of Denver Water’s Moffat Collection System to help bring water to the Front Range. In 2011, it was redesigned to trap the traction sand.

The project got its first test in 2013 and has been a big success. Water treatment operators have noticed a significant improvement in the quality of the water, and trout populations are showing signs of recovery.

Redesigning the pond took years of collaboration and money from multiple partners, including Denver Water, CDOT, East Grand Water Quality Board, Grand County and the Town of Winter Park. Federal and state agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, also collaborated on the project.

Denver Water provided an additional $50,000 as part of the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement — a pact signed by 18 organizations, including Denver Water, on how to manage the Colorado River.

The pond after 520 tons of sediment was removed in October.

The pond after 520 tons of sediment was removed in October.

The pond is the first project completed with funding from the agreement. “This is a great sign that collaboration does work. It’s exciting for me to see this project operating and improving the aquatic environment for Grand County,” Urie said.

Project partners evaluate the sediment levels each year to determine if there’s enough sediment to remove in the fall. “We live up here too, so we’re doing our part to be good stewards of the land,” Hugley said.

Klancke hopes the spirit of cooperation will continue for years to come. “When I look at this river now I smile,” he said. “This is good for the whole state, good for Grand County, good for the fish. I’m happy with this project.”

 

Contributing: Kim Unger

A caretaker’s daughter

What it was like to grow up in Waterton Canyon

By Jessica Mahaffey

For most people in the Denver area, Waterton Canyon is a nearby recreation destination, perfect for weekend family hikes, morning bike rides and afternoon fly fishing.

But for me, Waterton Canyon is home. It’s more than a beautiful place, it’s a living part of my memory, a leading character in my life story.

I was a caretaker’s daughter.

For 21 years, from 1987 to 2008, my father worked as a Denver Water caretaker, which required our family to live at two mountain reservoirs: Williams Fork and Strontia Springs, better known as Waterton Canyon.

Front Yard Intake Dam ruins in the background

Winter 1989: The author, right, with her brother Jason and sister Katie, in their first winter living in Waterton Canyon. The concrete remnants of the Platte Canyon diversion dam — a favorite fishing spot — are pictured in the background.

In my formative years, I had little, if any, access to television, learned to use a party-line phone, burned our trash in a barrel and experienced isolation.

I loved everything about it.

With my schoolmates, it was hard to explain my dad’s job and where I lived. The conversation on the playground usually went something like this:

Schoolmate: What street do you live on? Maybe you can come over after school?

Me: I don’t live on a street. I live in Waterton Canyon.

Schoolmate: Do you live in Roxborough Park or in Deer Creek Canyon? Why do you drive so far to go to school in Littleton?

Me: No, I live in Waterton Canyon. You know, the place people ride their bikes and go fishing? My dad is a caretaker, so we live there.

Schoolmate: Caretaker? Is that like a park ranger?

Me: Sigh.

Dad back patio Waterton

Mark Kirk, author’s dad, pictured in June 1991. Kirk retired and the family moved out of Waterton Canyon in 2008.

What I wanted to tell them was that Dad worked for Denver Water. He was in charge of maintaining the canyon and managing the flow of the South Platte River through diversion dams, conduits, the High Line Canal and Strontia Springs reservoir.

He also ran the hydroelectric power plant at the 243-foot, double-arch concrete dam. Sometimes he let me go with him into the belly of the dam. I’d sit at a desk near the generators and turbines, doing homework while he read the gauges.

My schoolmates would ask why they never met my dad. Why doesn’t he come to back-to-school night or field day?

I knew my dad wanted to go to my school events. But his work required him to be on-call (like a doctor) in the canyon in case something happened. Sometimes he would respond to emergencies like wild fires or high water in the area, but most of the time it was something minor, like a rockslide or the generator tripping.

But whenever I attempted to explain this, my friends completely lost interest and changed the subject to a more relatable topic, like lunch or sports. Until I invited them to my house. I could see their eyes light up with understanding as we drove through the canyon (around the bikers and hikers) to our house.

The adventure, freedom, security and beauty of our home became a sanctuary to many of our childhood friends. My brother built a firepit behind our house, and my sister and I would collect driftwood along the riverbank for slumber-party bonfires.

Sometimes we’d go fishing late at night and cook fresh trout on the open flames, play guitar, dance and sing loudly to the stars. We didn’t have neighbors to disturb, so we would carry on late into the night.

We lived secluded in nature, far from neighborhoods, parks, swimming pools and grocery stores. I liked not living near a lot of people. Just our family, the other caretakers (who were like family) and nature.

My parents didn’t warn us to look out for strangers or traffic. Instead they warned us about rattlesnakes, rockslides, high-water conditions or iced-over water.  They encouraged us to explore our environment, to be curious and free. We took full advantage of our time and were almost always outside, claiming the canyon like wild explorers naming landmarks along the way.

Jessica Backporch rain

Spring 1995: Author standing in the rain on the family’s back patio in Waterton Canyon.

One such landmark we called The Beach, a sandy section of riverbank about 2.5 miles up the canyon. I can imagine what the mothers and fathers hiking with their children thought of the three of us: parentless, setting up beach towels on the banks of the river, putting on sunscreen, sipping lemonade and listening to Beatles cassettes on our battery-operated radio.

As an adult, I have sat poolside at five-star resorts, but nothing compares to the cold, clear water of the South Platte on a hot August day in the canyon.

Of course, we weren’t the only people enjoying the canyon in the summer. On any given weekend, we shared Waterton with thousands of hikers and bikers. One summer, we set up a lemonade stand in front of our house.

People told us they had left their wallets in their cars, so I made a sign on poster board that read: “Fresh lemonade 3 miles up the canyon. 50 Cents. Don’t forget your wallet in your car!” My sister rode her bike down the canyon and hung the sign in the parking lot.

That must have worked, because on busy days we made a nice profit.

Connected to nature, connected to life.

We also shared the canyon with an abundance of wildlife and learned first-hand about the cycle of life. We witnessed bighorn sheep lambs following their mothers in the spring, and in the fall watched their fathers butt heads, sending thunderous echoes along the canyon walls. We learned the habits of the herd and knew where to find them, depending on the season or time of day.

One year, on a trip to the top of the dam, my brother and dad came upon a dead ewe with her lamb huddled close by. My brother wanted to rescue the lamb, so Dad agreed to stop back on the way home to see if they could reunite the lamb with its herd. It was too late; an eagle, or some other predatory bird, had found the lamb and plucked out its heart. My brother was upset for days.

Nature isn’t always peaceful and beautiful. In our adventures we discovered animal carcasses, mountain lions stalking prey, aggressive trash-diving bears and raccoons, and skunks and porcupines harassing our dog.

Nature can be a harsh teacher, but it’s better than learning those lessons from the evening news.

We also made our share of successful rescues. One evening, my dad released an owl caught in a fishing line in the river. Though Dad was slightly wounded in the process (owls have powerful talons), we were happy to see the powerful bird regain its freedom.

I can’t be sure it was the same owl, but from that day forward, we heard an owl hooting at night from the light post in our yard.

Jessica Backporch sun

The author, pictured in summer 1996, the year of the Buffalo Creek Fire and subsequent heavy flooding. The family had to evacuate the canyon for a short time while father worked day and night with the other caretakers to remove debris in Strontia Springs Reservoir.

We felt connected to the animals that shared our habitat and made up stories about them. There was a fox that sat on our back porch nearly every evening. We named him Todd (from The Fox and the Hound).

On the morning of my wedding, Dad drove me to church. As we reached the bottom of the canyon, a bear crossed the road. It was unusual to see a bear in the morning hours, and Dad said it had come to send me off and wish me well.

Dad then decreed my wedding day the Day of the Bear. On our one-year anniversary, my husband and I saw a bear as we drove up the canyon to see my parents, reinforcing Dad’s decree and adding an extra layer of special to our already special day.

My family also felt connected to the river. During my teen years, when I was angry with my parents, heartbroken or worried about school, I would sit next to the river and let the sounds and currents show me the gentle way forward.

I’ve poured my heart and secrets into those waters. I’ve observed the patterns of how the river flows through seasons: high water or low, shallow or deep, always moving forward to provide life for animals and the people downstream.

I have always been proud of my dad’s contribution to the flow of the water, to life. Now that I work at Denver Water, I am honored and humbled to continue his legacy in my small way, reconnected to the river and land I love.

Return to Canyon 2015

Spring 2015: Author returns to the canyon as a Denver Water employee.

%d bloggers like this: