Will Rice, a resident of City Park, member of Denver Trout Unlimited
and an avid catch-and-release angler, has regularly fished for carp in the South Platte River for about fifteen years. Once he discovered the proper technique for catching these skittish fish, which he describes as more akin to stalking and hunting than traditional fishing, he was hooked on the South Platte.
“For me, that just was like a huge unlock that there could be this challenging fishery three or four miles from my house, with this just massive amount of public river access and a super-challenging fish,” he says.
Rather than spending time and money driving to the mountains, Rice can skip the traffic and enjoy hours of fishing, often without encountering any other anglers.
But in 2020, the Water Quality Control Commission
determined that the section of the South Platte that runs through Commerce City and the section of Clear Creek where Coors facilities release discharges should be moved from reviewable status to use-protected status. After that, entities that discharge waste into those sections of the waterways were allowed to do so without community review of permits or other proposed amounts, as long as the discharges didn’t cause the South Platte to dip below minimum water-quality standards.
“As an angler, as a river user, I'll say it was personally offensive,” Rice says. “I don't use those words lightly. To think that, in an urban area like this, people made a decision to roll back protections that would let dischargers potentially increase pollutants into that section of the river…I just found that concept and that decision offensive.”
He wasn’t alone.
On September 12, the Water Quality Control Commission — in response to a petition filed by the Environmental Justice and Conservation Coalition, which includes many nonprofits and community groups like Trout Unlimited
, Conservation Colorado
, Western Resource Advocates
— will hold a hearing to determine whether those sections of the South Platte River should regain anti-degradation protection.
Every five years, the WQCC examines what level of protection
should apply to certain stretches of water in the state. The lowest level of protection is use-protected, which requires that water must only be as clean as the minimum standard. Then comes reviewable, which allows no significant degradation even if water quality is above minimum standards and requires review of actions that could contaminate the water; most streams in Colorado have reviewable status. The highest level of protection requires no water-quality degradation.
“The whole purpose is that as things get better, you don't backslide,” says Mely Whiting, legal counsel for Trout Unlimited's Colorado Water Project. “You don't make them worse by just discharging more pollutants.”
In making that determination about the South Platte, the WQCC went against the recommendation of Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment
staff and the tests it uses to make decisions about anti-degradation protection. Most members of the public, including advocacy groups, weren’t aware that the status of this portion of the South Platte had been changed until the commission tried to alter the criteria for making such determinations in 2021. Whiting says those alterations would have accommodated the 2020 decision.
“It seemed like they were trying to fly under the radar and to modify a really important environmental policy to suit a decision which, on the record, the Water Quality Control Commission's lawyers said potentially could be perceived as arbitrary and capricious,” says Josh Kuhn, water policy manager for Conservation Colorado.
At that point, advocates who successfully rallied to oppose the rule change realized what had happened in 2020, and worked to overturn that decision as well.
“The outcome likely would have been different if the impacted residents and local governments had the opportunity to provide their perspective and support of the science and data,” Kuhn says.
Arvada angler Reid Baker fishes in segment 15, the stretch of the South Platte that is currently use-protected.
In the 2022 state legislative session
, Representative Adrienne Benavidez sponsored a bill
that aimed to prevent something like the 2020 decision from happening again, requiring that the WQCC conduct more community outreach and follow its own rules when it comes to use-protected designations; it also extended the statute of limitations for water-quality violations from one year to five.
The criteria the WQCC is now required to use to determine the status of a river or stream is called the twelve-parameter test. A river can be designated as use protected if measures of three or more of twelve listed pollutants do not meet minimum water-quality standards. According to Whiting, E. coli is the only pollutant in the section of the South Platte in question that has not met the standard.
The commission can also apply the substantial pollution test.
“Say E. coli exceeds standards; the commission could theoretically find that is enough to cause substantial pollution,” explains Whiting. However, it must find that the substantial pollution is natural or irreversible to qualify for use-protected status, neither of which is true for E. coli in the South Platte.
“There's no river beyond repair, in my perspective,” Kuhn adds, pointing to recent improvements in the water quality of the South Platte as an example.
Even if the commission finds the river meets one of the two standards for downgrading, the community argues that it should be designated as special to the area and regain the anti-degradation protections.
“From a community recreation standpoint, it’s a special place,” Whiting says. “It's one of the few places in such a highly urban area where people can go and kids can go. You can't go on and protect all these beautiful mountain streams and not give the same level of protection to these urban corridors. It’s not okay.”
Rice has seen more members of the community use the river over the years, and has never lost his own excitement for fishing the South Platte. Through Denver Trout Unlimited, he's also contributed to cleaning it up.
“If you look at the river physically, over the last fifteen years, it's a much, much improved river, in my opinion,” he says. “I would say one of the biggest things is just large debris below the waterline. Over the years, when those cleanups happened and that large debris is getting consistently taken out of the water, that's one of the biggest things that visually I would say that you can see. And that's real, grassroots efforts.”
Now those efforts are focused on guaranteeing legal protection for the river.
“It's going to show the rest of the people of Colorado that this is a tool that they have, that they can exercise for environmental justice,” says Ean Thomas Tafoya
, Colorado director of GreenLatinos, whose mother’s house is in close proximity to the South Platte. “Our coalition's getting bigger and stronger. We have the public health experts. We have the technical experts. We have the attorneys and we have the community voices — and when those are all together, that's a powerful force.”
Those voices will be out in force at the September 12 meeting
; those who want to give public comment must sign up in advance
“Having a river like the South Platte that runs through a metropolitan area, especially a growing metropolitan area like Denver, it's a jewel,” Rice concludes. “Everyone should be able to enjoy a waterway that goes through their city, and just because it's an urban waterway doesn't mean that it shouldn't be valued.”