Watershed tour reveals complexities of the Cache la Poudre River

A game busload of folks learned lots about the delicate dance of protecting and managing the Cache la Poudre River watershed by boogying like a bacteria.

That was the lighter side of a daylong tour demonstrating the serious business of how water making its way into the Poudre is acquired, delivered, treated and distributed to Fort Collins, Greeley, and adjoining water districts.

It also offered a preview of upcoming projects along the Poudre that may appear catastrophic now but ultimately will result in a healthier more natural river.

Sponsored by Fort Collins Utilities Services, the July tour took participants through forests scorched by the High Park Fire to learn about the special challenges of treating water laden with ash and sediment flowing from charred slopes.

From there it moved to the top of Cameron Pass, where the Upper Cache la Poudre River watershed begins. A stop at the Gateway Natural Area on the return trip offered the opportunity to identify the microscopic bacteria in the river that could make one dance a more frantic jig were they not intercepted before flowing from our taps.

“Basically the reason (Fort Collins) was founded was water,” explained Clyde Greenwood. The utility and water supply supervisor serves as the utility’s resident historian.

Greenwood said Fort Collins was fortunate in that there were no mines in the Poudre Canyon watershed. A watershed is the territory that drains into a body of water.

“Fort Collins is a unique town with pristine water,” he said.

Even so, drawing water from an open irrigation ditch or buying it by the bucket from a wagon, still led to periodic outbreaks of water-borne disease. He said one particularly bad outbreak combined with a catastrophic fire that threatened to consume the entire commercial district, made it clear that a real municipal water system was needed to suppress fires and deliver higher quality water.

The first plant was completed in 1883 at Overland Trail south of LaPorte. The need for still more water resulted in construction of a new treatment plant in 1903 at the confluence of the main stem and North Fork of the Poudre.

Expanded twice, that plant served until 1986 when it was replaced by a new facility at the end of LaPorte Avenue. The original site is now managed as a park and natural area.

Fort Collins takes half of its water from the Colorado-Big Thompson project’s Horsetooth Reservoir. The other half comes from the Poudre. As a result of quality problems caused by the fire, water supply engineer Adam Jokerst said last year the city took no water from the Poudre for 100 days and depended solely on Horsetooth. This helped the city avoid water restrictions, but reduced the amount of reservoir water it could carry over to this year.

This year, last-minute heavy snows in the high country, the availability of more C-BT water, and the ability to once again take water from the Poudre allowed the city to avoid restrictions, he said.

The main problem plaguing the city’s water supply, he said, is the lack of flexibility with limited reservoir space. “We kind of live from year to year. If we get storage, our system is pretty robust.”

Jokerst said the Army Corps of Engineers continues to evaluate the proposed expansion of the city’s Halligan Reservoir, with a decision expected in 2020.

In the meantime, Fort Collins will keep working to meet new increased standards for drought protection, as well as toward conservation efforts that have resulted in a 25 percent reduction in water use over the last decade.

The tour also offered an intriguing tease of projects planned for the next year to improve the health of the river as it passes through Fort Collins. Barriers will be removed, unnaturally steep riverbanks lowered, and the river better managed to maintain year-round in-stream flows.
Those efforts will be complemented by projects including replacement of the Shields and Mulberry street bridges, and West Vine Drive drainage improvements. The Poudre River Trail will be realigned in places and a natural area established along the restored river on 31 acres donated by Woodward Inc.

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