Denver in 1859

A Collier & Cleveland Litho Co. print is housed in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division depicting Denver in 1859. The place started as a gold mining camp at the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River in November 1858.

There is a school of thought that a river lives its full life at once, no beginning and no end. The headwaters, the channel, the city and the farm, a river is governed by no borders and has no clock.

River towns are way stations of time and place.

Change can happen slow in rivers, with pollution or over-appropriation, or fast like the bomb blast of a flood, and the towns that spring up like cottonwoods along Colorado's major rivers bear witness to the life of the state.

River towns don't get enough chances to tell their stories.

Those are the stories some of the best journalists in the state aim to tell you this summer. We hope you will follow along to learn about the past, present and future of water and people. Like a river, it's constantly changing and constantly the same at once.

Reporters, photographers and videographers from Colorado Politics, the Denver and Colorado Springs Gazettes, as well as students from the University of Colorado News Corps will find out what’s in the water in each river town — quantity and quality, of course, but also how and why they are the lifeblood of their community.

In April, just as this project was starting to coalesce, Rocky Mountain National Park tweeted a quote that spurred our thoughts: “The song of the river ends not at her banks but in the hearts of those who have loved her.”

In most Colorado river towns yes, but in some it's tough love at best.

Take Denver, born at the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek as a gold mining camp in 1858, and it's been home to feedlots, train yards and industry ever since. Denver's river, save Confluence Park, is more of an industrial canal than a royal sash for the Queen City of the Plains.

We start with Estes Park, the first stop for the Big Thompson River, as it flows out of the valley in Moraine Park, before it joins with 71 billion gallons of West Slope water that travels in a tunnel under the Continental Divide.

We’ll conclude the series Labor Day weekend with a unique and probing look at the missed opportunities Denver has dealt itself by industrializing and neglecting the South Platte. In 1965, a major flood with devastation wholly predictable dealt the city its worst recorded natural disaster, drafting Tim Tebow notwithstanding.

None of the towns are the same, and none really live up to the river town stereotype with rusty-signed bait shops with a pickled eggs on the counter, “ice cold” beer and the steady buzz of outboard motors coming and going. 

If it were so, a pickled egg in Aspen would run you 50 bucks and the ice cold beer would be sold in a growler and brewed in a copper kettle in the back of the store.

Yet, what is Pueblo without the Arkansas River passing through, Grand Junction without the state's bon voyage to its home brew in the Colorado River, or Fort Collins without the Cache La Poudre, a river named by French-Canadian fur traders to remind them where they hid their gun powder? I'm not making that up, and it's just so Colorado.

A river bestows history on a town, but a town can only shape the future of the river and the people and places downstream.

We owe it to ourselves to be thoughtful.

“Rivers are places that renew our spirit, connect us with our past, and link us directly with the flow and rhythm of the natural world.” my old boss Ted Turner wrote in the forward for a book called “The Rivers of South Carolina” in 1999. 

What every river town has in common is a front-row seat to its own existence, said my new friend Dave Lipson, a big-deal hydrologist.

Dr. Dave edits the scientific journal Groundwater and sits on the board of the Scientists and Engineers Section of the National Ground Water Association. He's an adjunct professor in advanced hydrology at the Colorado School of Mines and a former visiting professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Nanjing. 

The rivers, reservoirs and aquifers of Colorado share a common problem, too, he told me. They stare down population growth and climate change, the latter delivering longer and more oppressive droughts and more intense rain storms.

As to the former, the Front Range is picking up about 100,000 new residents a year, and the Western Slope communities and Eastern Plains farmlands are being dried up to quench city needs.

Those of us who don’t give a thought to where the water comes from, other than from our faucets, are ignoring Colorado's uncertain future. 

“I don't have a crystal ball, but at some point there's going to be more people than water availability,” Dave said. “I don't know when that's gonna happen. It's not probably gonna happen in our lifetimes, but if population growth continues to grow, that puts a huge amount of pressure on how water is managed.”

The places that will feel that first are the Colorado river towns we cherish. We each have a stake in how they manage.

Where the water goes is where the future leads, same as it ever was.

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