For Colorado’s Reservoir Caretakers, Work Is A Calling And A Challenge — Colorado Public Radio

From Colorado Public Radio (Grace Hood):

Many people start their work day with a computer log-in screen. For Doug Billingsley, a reservoir caretaker for Greeley Water and Sewer, it begins with a snowmobile ride that feels like a bucking bronco. “This is the fun part,” the 57-year-old said…

Billingsley looks after about a half dozen northern Colorado reservoirs that feed the city of Greeley’s water supply. The city may be located on the plains, but it has substantial water rights located far away in the mountains. On a typical day, Billingsley may test snowpack levels or dig into the ice to make sure reservoir levels are holding steady.

One thing he always checks are the dams.

“Do I see any bulges? Do I see any rises, do I see any dips? Anything out of the ordinary. Because I know what the dam is supposed to look like. Summer and winter,” said Billingsley.

In the world of 24/7 automation, there are routine tasks that some water districts don’t have the resources or desire to automate. This is where reservoir caretakers come in. About 75 people across the state work in remote areas tending the state’s water supply. The job is time consuming and challenging. The reward during the summer is breath-taking scenery out your front door.

The power of a trained eye

Colorado has come a long way since its worst dam failure in 1933 when Castlewood Canyon dam burst spilling water into Cherry Creek and into parts of Denver. Back then it was dam caretaker Hugh Paine who rushed 12 miles to the nearest phone. With no text or cell phones, Paine was able to initiate a phone tree credited with saving many lives.

Across Colorado, the need for a physical presence near dams and reservoirs remains for many water districts. The Bureau of Reclamation can do most of its operations remotely, and relies on about 15-20 workers stationed remotely across its system.

Some of Colorado’s dams and reservoirs aren’t as automated. Older gauges and equipment need to be manually operated. Then there’s the role of the human eye in detecting dam problems. Many water managers believe it’s still one of the best diagnostic instruments.

“The human eye is the best tool to be able to recognize the subtle changes that might indicate a problem happening at a dam,” said Bill McCormick, dam safety chief for Colorado.

Take for example earthen dams. Automated tools monitor water seepage—small amounts are common. But McCormick said there can be subtle changes instruments don’t pick up.

“A caretaker’s eyes will catch that where the instrument would never see it,” said McCormick.

McCormick’s dam inspectors train reservoir caretakers on what problems to look for. The highest hazard dams are inspected every year.

A Calling
One of the state’s largest employers of reservoir caretakers is Denver Water. It positions two, sometimes three caretakers at its more remote reservoirs. One of the biggest challenges — and benefits — of the job is the variety of tasks.

“The best part about it is that you never do the same thing twice — unless it’s shoveling snow,” joked Ryan Rayfield, head caretaker of Williams Fork Reservoir in Grand County for Denver Water.

Rayfield said caretakers have to be a jack of all trades. Regular tasks include painting, carpentry and fixing lawnmowers. Rayfield even repairs and operates the hydroelectric plant. Rayfield lives with his wife and young daughter at the reservoir. Denver Water has stories of caretakers who have raised their entire families at reservoirs…

Tomorrow’s Water
Despite the harsh winter conditions, most reservoir caretakers say the job is challenging and rewarding. That’s true for Doug Billingsley. He stayed put at his home at the Milton Seaman Reservoir during the High Park Fire in 2012 to watch over vital equipment. He hunkered down during the 2013 floods.

The events didn’t cause direct problems for Milton Seaman Reservoir. But Randy Gustafson, city of Greeley water resource administrator, said having a presence in the backcountry was key — especially during the flood.

“It was critical on the aspect of just being able to assure everybody that the reservoir was operating as it should,” he said.

Milton Seaman Reservoir outlet July 2011
Milton Seaman Reservoir outlet July 2011

Leave a Reply