Building For Tomorrow, Headwaters, Summer 2020

HeadwatersPhasing out old infrastructure creates opportunities for Coloradans to envision futuristic ways of moving, managing and treating water

In 1937, teams of men swung their pickaxes into the Colorado sod just north of Golden to build Ralston Dam and bury veins of pipe that would carry water south toward the fledgling city of Denver. That growing community had just constructed its City and County Building in 1932, and, by 1934, boasted a symphony orchestra. Civilization was sprouting, and with the Ralston Creek project, the Denver Board of Water Commissioners apparently wanted to make a grand contribution to the city’s future. Maybe they sensed that they, like the ancient Romans, would be forever judged by the quality of their works. They built Ralston Dam and its network of valves and pipes to serve many generations of Coloradans—and, 80 years later, they’re still in service.

These days, suburbanites steer air-conditioned SUVs between the shopping centers and drive-throughs that have replaced the farmlands adjacent to the city center where workers buried pipe throughout the 1930s. And that infrastructure is finally showing its age. Cracking pipes are leaking water, and the utility is forecasting even bigger breakdowns ahead. The Moffat Treatment Plant, which was a cutting-edge facility when it was originally built, east of Ralston Dam, is now hemmed in by nearby housing and, with no room to expand, can’t keep pace with modern expectations.

Today’s residents and water providers grapple with issues that Denver’s settlers never could have envisioned. Climate change has intensified weather events and increased the frequency and severity of wildfires and flash floods—which can dramatically impact watersheds and the communities that depend on them. (In September 2013, record rainfall turned Ralston Creek into a firehose that eroded infill channels and destroyed water monitoring equipment at Ralston Reservoir.) New contaminants, such as pharmaceuticals and perfluorinated compounds, are infiltrating water supplies. And with human populations growing in Colorado and across the West—the  2019 Technical Update to the Colorado Water Plan projects that the state’s population could grow from around 5.4 million people in 2015 to between 7.6 and 9.3 million by 2050—we’ve become savvier about the importance of conserving water and other natural resources that seemed inexhaustible just 100 years ago. We’ve also witnessed development’s negative environmental consequences, and are prioritizing less impactful systems.

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