Voluntary, partnership approaches reduce nutrients in Colorado’s Cherry Creek Watershed

By Ayn Schmit

In late September the Cherry Creek Stewardship Partners and the Cherry Creek Basin Water Quality Authority hosted managers from EPA Region 8’s Office of Water Protection for a tour of local efforts to address phosphorus and other pollution and to better manage stormwater. The Stewardship Partners organization was formed 20 years ago in recognition that solving water pollution concerns was only possible if the many jurisdictions and organizations in the Cherry Creek watershed worked together and pooled their resources and brainpower.

The Cherry Creek watershed is home to many people in the southeast Denver Metro area, including parts of Denver, Aurora, Littleton and Parker. We started our morning at the iconic Cherry Creek State Park (the most visited state park in Colorado!) and learned about the accumulation of phosphorus in Cherry Creek Reservoir. Soils in the area are naturally high in phosphorus, and as a result, erosion along many of the creeks brings this additional phosphorus into the reservoir. Add urban wastewater and the runoff of lawn fertilizer, pet waste, and other sources of nutrients into the mix and you end up with a complex set of challenges for local water and wastewater officials to navigate. The Cherry Creek Basin Water Quality Authority is at the heart of these challenges as it works with many partners to meet phosphorus limits in the reservoir.

Our next visit was in Parker, where the recently completed Reuter-Hess Reservoir provides for a growing demand for drinking water. Parker and other communities are looking to integrate their management of wastewater, drinking water and stormwater to enable multiple cycles of reuse. One innovative example is working with developers to use natural drainages to filter nutrients and other stormwater pollutants running off driveways and streets, and allow it to percolate and move more slowly down the watershed. Imagine a new house with your own creek out your back door! And — in a win-win for developers and the environment — local stormwater managers figured out how to do this without losing any housing sites at a large development coming into the area.

Southeast Metro Stormwater rain garden, Centennial, Colorado

Southeast Metro Stormwater rain garden, Centennial, Colorado

Southeast Metro Stormwater Authority model rain garden, Centennial, Colo.
Next, we stopped in to visit a rain garden in the ‘front yard’ of the Southeast Metro Stormwater Authority. Planted with native grasses rippling in the breeze, it is a beautiful oasis and a testament to designing with nature.

Cherry Creek Valley Ecological Park, Centennial, Colorado

Cherry Creek Valley Ecological Park, Centennial, Colorado

Cherry Creek Valley Ecological Park, Centennial, Colo.
The final stop was the ‘crown jewel’ of the tour — a 25-acre park featuring restored riparian areas along Cherry Creek in the middle of the town of Centennial. The Cherry Creek Valley Ecological Park blends restored riparian areas and wetlands, where the slopes of the Creek were reshaped and replanted with native vegetation. A wooden boardwalk winds through wetland areas, and playful ‘rock’ drop structures maintain the Creek channel while providing a place for kids to splash and play in the water. Sure enough, while we were visiting, a large group of preschool children and their teachers and parents were taking full advantage of the sunny day to enjoy the water and hop across the rocks.

This project is an inspiring collaboration between Urban Drainage and Flood Control, Arapaho County, Southeast Metro Stormwater Authority, Parker Jordan Metropolitan Authority District and others. The park’s features reduce erosion of phosphorus-laden sediment that would end up in Cherry Creek Reservoir, while providing a fantastic nature-based educational amenity for local residents. The pride that the watershed partners take in this project was very evident and well deserved!

EPA appreciated the opportunity to learn about the great work the Cherry Creek Stewardship Partners and their member organizations are doing. Seeing locally led water quality protection in action reminds us why we do what we do!

About the author: Ayn Schmit is Senior Adviser in the Region 8 Office of Water Protection.

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