South Platte River: Joe and Jeff Shoemaker share a long history of service to the river corridor

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Click here to go to Westword’s terrific in-depth look at the history, present and future of the South Platte River Corridor in Denver. I ride the river between Thornton and Denver often so thank you Joe and Jeff. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Joe Shoemaker ran for mayor in 1971, and although he didn’t win that office, he found a cause: pushing for the cleanup of the Platte. Jeff was just back from his freshman year in college in June ’74 when his father said that Mayor Bill McNichols had asked him to head an effort to restore the river and was giving the Platte River Development Committee $2 million for the cause.

“I just remember thinking my dad was fifty and that was such a cool thing…but what did it mean?” Jeff recalls.

Fifteen months later, he found out when Confluence Park opened, the first of two targeted projects; the other was Globeville Landing Park. Confluence was at the juncture of the Platte and Cherry Creek, close to the very spot where Denver had gotten its start when gold was found just upriver in 1858. And now the Platte, and the park around it, was turning into liquid gold.

By 1982, Jeff was mining that gold. He was looking for something beyond his job as a schoolteacher, and after turning his dad down three times, he finally accepted a spot as executive director of the Greenway Foundation, the nonprofit that evolved from the PRDC, on a six-month trial basis.

Thirty years later, he’s still there. So is his almost-88-year-old father, in spirit if not in day-to-day operations. “There’s a difference I want to make clear,” Jeff makes clear. “This is and this remains my job, but my father has been a volunteer from day one. He’s not only never made a nickel off this, he’s donated six-figure money to the cause. He’s had opportunity after opportunity — but he’s avoided any conflicts. It’s not that we’re purists; it’s just that we’re realists.”[…]

Just how much abuse the South Platte itself can take is an open question. North of downtown, the river winds through an increasingly grimy and aromatic wasteland. It’s a sacrifice area, the legacy of a bargain struck long ago, a place where the rudiments of nature are subjugated to the demands of industry. For the beehives of commerce along its banks, the river isn’t a resource but a long-suffering appendage — and a handy dumping ground.

Looming over this stretch of the Platte is the Cherokee coal-fired power plant. Built between 1955 and 1968, the plant burns up to 5,600 tons of coal a day, creating steam with water drawn from the Platte and a Denver Water recycling plant, and generating enough electricity to power more than half a million homes. But Cherokee is one of the more benign neighbors. According to a recent report by Environment Colorado, the South Platte is the most polluted waterway in the state, absorbing almost 250,000 pounds of toxic chemicals a year.

One longtime contributor to that devil’s brew is the Suncor Energy oil refinery, a sprawling complex of tanks and machinery and railway sidings that hems in Brighton Boulevard on both sides. Contamination of groundwater at the site, which processes 90,000 barrels of crude oil a day, dates back decades. Suncor has been involved in cleanup efforts since it purchased the operation from Conoco in 2004, but the results have been something less than spectacular…

On a quiet, cloud-covered afternoon just around supper time, Tim Baker stands on the northern shoreline of the east pond at Elaine T. Valente Open Space with a fishing pole in his hand…

It’s not hard to see why he chose this place. On a clear day the park boasts some spectacular sightlines. To the southwest, you can catch the outline of the Denver skyline traced ever so faintly against a sprawling mountain-vista backdrop. Nestled on a stretch of road on East 104th Avenue between McKay and Brighton Roads, Elaine T. Valente Open Space comprises three fishable ponds that are linked together by an assortment of arterial bike and hiking trails that wind around the park and snake their way along the South Platte River. Motorists making their way down East 104th are most likely unaware of the wildlife and recreational activity taking place here. From the road, it looks like nothing more than a quaint roadside lake with a picnic shelter. Last Friday, a host of local politicians, led by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Governor Hickenlooper, announced that they had formed a partnership that will create uninterrupted trails and links that will connect Rocky Mountain National Park, Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge and the numerous trail systems in between; Baker’s fishing hole will be part of that plan.

Click here to take a video bicycle ride down the South Platte River Trail.

More South Platte River basin coverage here.

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