Founded along the South Platte River by prospectors who first struck gold on its banks, Denver has grown up around the waterway, from a makeshift encampment established in 1858 to a city of nearly 750,000 people anchoring a metro area nearly four times that size.

From Denver’s first European settlers, who joined an Arapaho camp led by Chief Little Raven at the confluence of the South Platte and Cherry Creek, to the urban pioneers who reclaimed the river from a history of neglect and now flock to the bustling Joe Shoemaker Plaza at the same confluence, the city’s residents have been shaped by the river, their fates intertwined.

The plaza is the crown jewel of nearly 50-year campaign to “breath[e] life” into what had for decades been a “dead urban waterway,” as the foundation tasked with revitalizing the South Platte describes it.

If the 10.5-mile stretch of the South Platte through Denver has a patron saint, it’s Joe Shoemaker, the late state senator and one-time deputy mayor of Denver, who co-founded the Platte River Development Committee with then-Denver Mayor Bill McNichols in 1974 and shepherded its transformation into the enduring Greenway Foundation.

When Shoemaker died in 2012, a Boulder-based environmental newsletter eulogized his impact.

“Joe was a visionary who stood on the banks of the South Platte River (when there was not a single park or trail, when the river was so polluted that it was toxic to touch, when raw sewage was being pumped into the river, and when no one else thought the river had a chance of survival) and said, ‘We can do better,’” wrote the editors of The Blue Line.

Shoemaker is also a great chronicler of the river’s revival, recalling in his 1981 book “Returning the Platte to the People” that only a few years earlier, the river had been treated as “Denver’s receptacle for anything they wanted out of sight, out of mind.”

Before he undertook his life’s project of “turning the blighted Platte into an amenity,” he wrote, most Denver residents had “treated the Platte virtually as abandoned territory.” Even years into its rehabilitation, Shoemaker said he had to struggle with an attitude that said, "If you have something to dump, down to the river it goes!”

That all changed on a June afternoon in 1965 when a slow-moving storm dumped nearly 14 inches of rain into the South Platte watershed just south of Denver, unleashing the largest natural disaster in the city’s history — flooding a quarter of a million acres, leaving 25 dead and causing the equivalent of $14 billion in damage, in today’s dollars.

“Instead of the normal 300 cubic feet of water per second, or the 3,000 that we called exceptionally high,” Shoemaker wrote, “the raging South Platte hit us with the astonishing flow of 150,000 cubic feet per second.”

In addition to the destructive water, the flood returned to the city the industrial waste, chemicals and trash that had accumulated in what the Greenway Foundation said had been a “virtually abandoned and forgotten open sewer,” awakening a few visionaries in the city to their role as stewards of the river.

More than $500 million has since been invested in the river and surrounding parks and trails through Denver, accomplishing what Peter Warren, a University of Denver professor, described in its early stages as “one of the most remarkable examples of urban revitalization in the United States.”

The work, Warren wrote in “The Greening of the Platte,” a 1980 Rocky Mountain News article cited by Joe Shoemaker in his book, was transforming “a blighted, degraded river — little more than an open sewer — into a major amenity for Denver.”

“One of the key reasons Denver is the strong, international city it is, is because we have a vibrant river,” Jeff Shoemaker, Joe Shoemaker's son who became executive director of the Greenway Foundation in 1982, said in a presentation to supporters. 

“Without that environmental asset, I don’t believe that all the adjacent development — be it residential or commercial — I don’t think their vitality, strength and existence would be where they are today,” he said.

South Platte River

The South Platte River as seen from the Speer Boulevard bridge looking south, with Elitch Gardens amusement park and Empower Field at Mile High in the distance.

What’s in the water?

Denver’s Department of Public Health and environment has sampled the water in many of Denver’s streams and lakes for six decades. Last year, the South Platte earned a quality rating of “fair.”

Persistent challenges include E. coli, nitrogen and phosphorous. In all, 25% of the river does not meet all of the state’s water quality standards, including segments in the Denver metro area.

Bear in mind. the river's metro watershed includes six Superfund cleanup sites, one of the worst environmental designations the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can assign.

“Denver’s streams and lakes receive runoff from streets and discharges from industry and wastewater treatment plants,” Denver’s health department warns. “As a result, DDPHE discourages anglers from eating fish caught out of any of the small tributaries to the South Platte River or Cherry Creek (or any of Denver’s streams or lakes).”

Last year, the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission rejected a recommendation to upgrade the level of protection from polluters like Metro Wastewater or Suncor. The state is currently reviewing Suncor's permits to release storm water and treated wastewater. The refinery has had 17 reported spills since November 2012.

“We cannot wait five more years to upgrade or revisit what’s happening to the communities in north Denver,” Ean Thomas Tafoya of GreenLatinos told the water quality commission earlier this month, asking for a reconsideration of its prior rejection.

In addition to industrial polluters, the South Platte also has historically suffered from a more dispersed threat: the residents of Denver.

“It’s terrifying to look at the rivers and see the state some people leave it in. Finding needles. It’s sad, it’s terrifying, it’s scary," said Miguel Hallman of Odell Brewery during a volunteer river cleanup in downtown.

River pollution was part of the justification for Denver enacting a 10-cent fee for disposal bags that went into effect this year. Residents use upward of 100 million disposable bags annually, nearly all of which are not recycled, and some of which make their way into waterways.

Before and after Denver

A river born in Park County travels 440 miles to join the North Platte in Nebraska. Its journey to Denver is its most scenic, traversing canyons rich with anglers, rafters, backpackers and typically an abundance of cool water year-round.

After it passes through the urbanized, industrialized Denver metro area — with its slalom course of streets and freeways, railroad tracks, an Xcel power plant and plenty more industries — a different animal creeps out to the farmlands of the Eastern Plains. 

Fed by the drainage of a city, both of Denver’s main waterways, the South Platte River and Cherry Creek battle E. coli levels above recreational standards, landing it on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's list of impaired waterways for pathogens. 

Denver doesn’t shoulder the water quality burden alone. The South Platte arrives with baggage from years of forest fires that dumped heavy sediment in the river, which is a major hassle for Denver Water, the metro region’s supplier.

Strontia Springs, a cup that holds drinking water for 1.5 million Front Range residents, inherits the equivalent of thousands of dump truck loads of grit each year, Denver Water says. 

City officials are hopeful the redevelopment of the National Western Center means a fresh look at the river and the work that could be done to improve it there and elsewhere in town.

Headed out of town, the South Platte picks up the outfall at the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District plant.

Dr. Dave Lipson, the principal hydrogeologist for HRS Water Consultants, Inc. is on the board of the Scientists and Engineers Section of the National Ground Water Association. He's also an adjunct professor in advanced hydrology at the Colorado School of Mines.

He looked at the water quality data upstream and downstream from Chatfield Reservoir.

“If you drank a glass of South Platte River water upstream of Chatfield, you’d be ingesting sulfur, arsenic, uranium, lead, cadmium, zinc and other metals which are present in the river due to a legacy of over 100 years of mining and no or relatively little cleanup of waste rock dumps that leach metals directly into the river,” Lipson said.

Nonetheless, urban runoff is no friend to the South Platte, either.

“I would not drink a glass of water from the South Platte River at Commerce City,” he said. “The discharge from Metro Wastewater contains phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium, and probably dilutes contaminants from our mining legacy and urban runoff.

“So farms in the northeast that obtain South Platte River water downstream of Denver are getting a veritable industrial stew of contaminants.”

Someday: 'The best place to live'

Denver's efforts to show off its river and weave it into the city images has had mixed results, even flopping once before on the national stage.

In March 1996, when Vice President Al Gore came to town, some city officials wanted to make the South Platte look better than it was.

That prompted the Denver Water Board to fling open the heat gate at the Chatfield Reservoir to release 92 million gallons of water, enough for 240 families of four for an entire year.

That PR stunt cost $59,000 worth of water ultimately paid for by utility customers. The move was panned, even by the environmentally conscience Gore, whose staff said afterward he didn't know about the wasted water and would not have approved it.

"I thought it would be nice to have it look good for the vice president,″ the late Chips Barry, head of the Denver Water, said at the time.

Gore was in town to talk bout a proposed public-private restoration of the South Platte, worth $40 million, the the latest attempt to reclaim the river.

Three years ago, Denver voters passed Ballot Measure 2A, pledging $46 million per year through a bump in sales tax for the city’s parks, trails and open spaces, with a portion dedicated to restoring waterways, rivers, canals and streams. The funding provides the backbone for Denver’s “Game Plan for a Healthy City.”

A 2021 progress report notes that the plan includes protection for the South Platte, through an expansion of “its role in creating great neighborhoods, improving flood management and expanding natural habitat.” The plan calls for restoration of “the river’s ability to provide natural benefits that promote water quality, flood control, ecosystem health and socio-economic growth” and developing a multi-disciplinary plan to guide the future of the river including its environmental, stormwater, water quality, flood mitigation, recreation and urban design components.

What does all that mean? So far, not much. A five-year capital projects plan from Denver Parks and Recreation doesn’t appear to include any projects for the South Platte. The only money for waterways in the five-year plan is $250,000, to be spent in 2020, on “restoration” for non-river projects, such as “ballfield lighting,” irrigation at City Park, and improvements to infrastructure at Grant Frontier Park, a remodeled space along the river south of Evans Avenue.

However, Shoemaker, who co-chaired the campaign for 2A, has more ambitious plans for the river and what is built along it now.

It’s known as “The River Mile,” and it’s the grand vision for a new neighborhood on the current Elitch Gardens site, running along the South Platte, starting at Colfax and ending at Speer Boulevard. River Mile represents the vision of Joe Shoemaker, who once said, “Someday, the best place to live, work and play will be along the South Platte River in Denver.”

The goal, according to Jeff Shoemaker, is to have as little of a water footprint as possible in the community.

According to its website, River Mile would add 27 acres of river-edge parks and open space. The project is under the auspices of the foundation, the city of Denver, developer Revesco Properties and Stan Kroenke, owner of the Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche and Ball Arena.

Elitch Gardens will remain in its current location for the foreseeable future, but when it’s ready to move, Revesco will help it find a better location, according to plans.

Shoemaker said that in the next 20 years, about a third of a billion dollars of federal money will be invested in the development of The River Mile. Eventually, the River Mile could be home to an estimated 15,000 residents, with what could be 7,600 homes, including 984 affordable housing units.

River Mile’s south end would be anchored by Meow Wolf, an immersive art installation that has won fans in other parts of the country and is due to open this month. It will eventually include a half-million square feet of retail space, two light rail stations, a new elementary school and a recreation center. Residential offerings are expected to be ready by 2024.

The project also will fulfill some of the promises made to the Globeville-Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods. Shoemaker said those neighborhoods have always been important to the Greenway Foundation, and it's backed that up by setting up environmental education for neighborhood school groups, known as SPREE, a program that has been part of the foundation for decades. Some former SPREE participants over the past 40 years are now bringing their children to the program.

As part of the commitment to the area, the first funded project for River Mile will be to deal with flood control, habitat restoration and increased wetland areas on the South Platte just south of the neighborhoods. That project will make the river healthier, safer and more accessible, Shoemaker said.

A river for the for people

As the South Platte winds its way through the city landscape, it's flanked by more than 20 parks and miles of hiking and biking trails. Those green spaces and natural areas are a far cry from the river's state six decades ago.

“Every single park that you're looking at up and down the river was an abused site,” the younger Shoemaker said. “It was either a landfill dumpsite, it was industrial yards, it was railroad yards, it was a superfund site.”

That all began to change in the wake of the 1965 South Platte flood. It was time to rethink the city’s relationship with the river, and the elder Shoemaker took the lead.

In 1974, he approached McNichols — who had defeated him the 1971 mayoral race after Shoemaker ran on a platform of reinvigorating the South Platte — with a question: What are you going to do about the river?

As it turned out, McNichols had $1.9 million in leftover federal dollars that he wanted to put toward the river. He appointed Shoemaker to lead a panel tasked with spending it, giving birth to the Platte River Development Committee, which evolved into The Greenway Foundation.

First came Confluence Park in 1975 at Denver’s birthplace. Progress on reducing pollution and creating green spaces continued through McNichols’ time in office and under the administration of his successor, Federico Peña.

But according to Jeff Shoemaker, the “largest evolutionary commitments to the river from the city” came under Mayor Wellington Webb, who declared 1996 the Year of the South Platte. By the time he left office in 2003, the river in Denver featured 75 more acres of parkland and seven new or expanded parks.

“The whole park system along the South Platte is one of my proudest achievements,” Webb told Colorado Politics. “To me, this is as important as the airport, because once you get the people here, they've got to go somewhere, and parks and open space add to the value of any city.”

Data from The Greenway Foundation backs that up. A study Joe Shoemaker commissioned in 1970 found properties within a half-mile of the South Platte and Cherry Creek were valued 17% lower than other properties elsewhere in Denver. By 2017, however, riverside properties were valued 36% higher, good for an increase in value of roughly $18 billion over those 47 years.

As does a city and a river, its cast of supporter rolls on, as well. Jeff Shoemaker announced his retirement from the foundation earlier this month after 39 years with the organization.

“The whole project was met with laughter and skepticism far more than excitement and enthusiasm,” his son said of the early days of the Platte River Development Committee. “And my father's response... was, ‘Mark my words: one day, this will be the best place to live, work and play in Denver.’

“How right he was.”

Colorado Politics staff writers Joey Bunch, Marianne Goodland, Michael Karlik and Pat Poblete contributed to this story.

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