It was June of 1965. My dad had just finished letting his hunting dogs run the open fields near the Platte River. I still vividly remember the ominous skies, but being ten, I never could have imagined what happened next. Almost instantly, water came from nowhere, roaring down fast and furiously licking its riverbanks and leaving their containment like a tiger on hunt. We were trapped. As the raging current began to rise, my dad shouted for us to get into the Jeep. No sooner were we inside the Jeep, when the water quickly cut off our access to safety. Water was everywhere and it was quickly rising up above the tires to the bottom of our Jeep’s windows. Before I could stop him, my dog, Charlie, jumped out of the window. He must have felt it was his only chance. I bit my lip, fought back the tears, and watched as he worked his way downstream using the current. It seemed like hours had passed, but it could have only been a few minutes. I remember thinking that my dad would get us out of the situation. Because at ten, that’s what dads do. And I just couldn’t realize the full enormity of something so huge. Earlier, I heard there had been some talk about constructing a dam on the South Platte River. But, like dragging a cat by its tail over carpet, it just didn’t seem necessary. Instead, the South Platte became a waste dump of abandoned cars, refrigerators, and construction debris. I remember all the junk, because as kid, I would inner tube with my friends down the Platte River. And where the Chatfield Reservoir is now used to be a Mexican restaurant/bar and a gas station. It was known as “Malfunction Junction” by many of those that frequented the location. Yes, they were less litigious times and definitely before anyone really understood the magnitude and probability of a flash flood.
This was before the days of Doppler radar and other advance weather warning technology. It was also before appropriate flood control measures were taken. The great South Platte River Flood of ’65 wasn’t the first flood to hit the Littleton area or devastate the lives and property of Coloradans. But, it was the biggest and most costly of its time. Twenty-eight people died in the flood of 1965 and property damages came to over $540 million. It was time to build a dam. The year was 1972 when the massive cleanup and construction of the Chatfield Dam began; it was completed in 1975, paving the way for municipalities to turn the valley into the beautiful recreational site thousands of people enjoy each year.
Today, the Chatfield Reservoir serves as one of the State’s most actively used recreational areas and is home to abundant wildlife and natural ecosystems. Built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the task of making sure the water basin is kept clean falls under the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). But, in 1984, under the authority of the CDPHE, a little known entity called the Chatfield Watershed Authority (CWA) was established with a mission to promote the protection of water quality in the Chatfield Watershed for recreation, fisheries, drinking water supplies, and other beneficial uses.The hands-on CWA group members are your local wastewater and stormwater management entities such as the Town of Castle Rock, Roxborough Water & Sanitation District, and many others. (See complete listing at http://www.ChatfieldWatershedAuthority.org.)
The Authority members continuously review wastewater treatment planning at the various points at which water originates and then mixes with natural environmental flow downstream and into our water infrastructure, i.e. Chatfield Reservoir. Individual Authority members are also responsible for stormwater management and permitting. According to Amy Conklin, Manager of the CWA, “Our number one priority is to protect the water quality in Chatfield’s Watershed and we do that by monitoring activities that could potentially degrade the water or its environmental quality.”
Additionally, there is an environmental factor, nutrients in the water, which the CWA also monitors. If water in the basin contains too many nutrients, it can deter people from using the reservoir for its intended purposes, such as swimming, fishing and boating. For example, if the water contains too much chlorophyll, the Reservoir can actually bloom with algae. But, here’s the good news. The CWA constantly monitors what goes in to Chatfield Reservoir. You don’t have to nod off, like I did, in learning about phosphorus and other nutrients. That’s why I’m not going into details of how the whole chemistry thing works. There’s no need because it’s being taken care of by the members of the CWA. Whew, believe me, that’s a relief.
And here’s some other good news. While the population in the Chatfield basin is projected to more than double by 2035, [Source: DRCOG Chatfield Technical Appendix] the CWA is well into its long-range water quality management plan to meet anticipated growth, water supply, public safety, wildlife, and environmental challenges.
“Today, helping to protect water quality in the Chatfield Watershed for recreation, fisheries, drinking water supplies, and other beneficial uses has become a shared responsibility. So we are asking everyone to actively participate in helping to maintain a clean and reliable water source,” says Amy.
Yes, I survived the South Platte River flood of ’65. A Colorado State patrolman came out of nowhere and tossed my dad a towrope. Hooking the towrope to the front of the Jeep, my dad was able to steer the vehicle out of harm’s way. As for Charlie, he must have floated downstream working his way to higher ground. Because when the Jeep was pulled from the roaring waters, he was ready for a ride home. So was I.
I am truly pleased about what Chatfield Reservoir has become. She has evolved from solely being a silent protector to an obvious symbol of life. Children now enjoy her banks, boats sail her winds, birds nest in her trees, fish swim her waters, and we can rely on her beauty daily. While the initial purpose of the Dam may soon be forgotten, what the Reservoir has become is protected by the Chatfield Watershed Authority. Learn more by visiting http://www.ChatfieldWatershedAuthority.org
Additional notes:Chatfield Reservoir was built in 1975 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the confluence of the South Platte River and Plum Creek to control flooding. The reservoir currently has the ability to store more than 350,000 acre-feet of water. One acre-foot is equal to 325,851 gallons of water. The main purpose of the reservoir is for flood control, but it also provides storage space for conservation (or “multipurpose”) water, which is used for municipal, industrial, agricultural, and recreational uses, as well as maintaining fisheries and wildlife habitat.
More South Platte Basin coverage here.