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South Platte Stories
E. coli is a type of bacterium that lives in our intestines and in all warm-blooded animals. Most varieties are harmless, but some can lead to serious illness. High levels of E. coli, coming from leaking infrastructure, pet waste, or runoff from streets, are common in the South Platte River. In warm summer months—when the water is the most inviting—it creates a conundrum for public health officials and city planners: How do you engage people to care about a river they can't touch? For the city of Denver, one solution is hiding in plain sight.


Frani Halperin, H2O Radio: Stephen Aderholdt is glad he’s wearing his waterproof socks as he wades into the frigid waters of the South Platte River. He gets to about thigh deep in the channel and then looks back to a group of us waiting on the bank.

                                    Rachel Hansgen: Looks like the water temperature is 6.33 degrees Centigrade. How’s it feelin', Stephen? (Group laughs)

Stephen Aderholdt: I’ve got my waders on, so I’m staying nice and dry.

Frani: Stephen’s not out in this river to demonstrate his fly-fishing skills, but he is angling. He’s in pursuit of a very small critter living in this water.

Rachel: What we’re doing is looking for E. coli in the water.

Frani: That’s Rachel Hansgen. She’s working with Stephen to take samples here at the confluence of Bear Creek and the South Platte about 10 miles upstream from downtown Denver.

Rachel: E. coli is a bacteria that’s used as an indicator of fecal contamination. So there’s poop in the water.

Frani: As Stephen scoops up small amounts of river water in bottles, Rachel’s jotting down measurements in her notebook. They’re from Groundwork Denver, a community action and environmental nonprofit, and they’re trying to figure out where the highest concentrations of the bacteria are—and hopefully unravel how it got there. The South Platte River was listed on Colorado’s impaired waters list in 2008 because of high E. coli levels.

Rachel: Okay, Stephen, we’re good.

Frani: As Stephen makes his way back to the shore, stepping past plastic bottles and trash, he hands off his samples to Rachel and dramatically holds up an instrument he’s been using.

Rachel Hansgen Stephen: As much as this looks like a light saber. It’s not. It’s a probe that measures several physical parameters in the water including the amount of dissolved oxygen, temperature, pH, and other things that are pertinent to the rate of growth of bacteria in the water.

Frani: E. coli is found in the guts of all warm-blooded animals, and what turns up in the water samples today could be a dropping from a bird or a dog—or it could come from people. It’s human contamination that public health officials worry about because that’s how diseases get spread. Rachel says she worries less about water with bird droppings than what could escape from a leaking sewer line or from people not picking up after their pets.

Rachel: So, yeah, we’re not going to round up all the geese and put diapers on them.

Frani: Instead, their goal is to pinpoint high E. coli concentrations in the creek and then work with cities to try to trace it back to a source like a leaking septic system or broken pipes—and ultimately fix it.

Rachel: Not only for our own enjoyment, but also because it saves us all money. The less we have to take out of water because we’ve put less in it, the better for all of us. I think cities would like to build more parks instead of constantly having to clean up our water.

Frani: One of those cities actively working with Groundwork is Denver. The South Platte runs right through the heart of downtown, and because it’s an urban corridor there’s lots of runoff from streets and sidewalks.

Denver Department of Environmental Health Water Quality Map

How to use this map:

Icons are located at water sampling areas. A red icon indicates that the site is not safe for recreation. Clicking on the icon will open up a window with a photo of the area, a description of the site, and information related to the most recent sampling results. DEH updates the map regularly and encourages people to check the most recent sampling results before going to a local stream or lake. They will be adding information about blue-green algae and cyanotoxin levels next summer. To see the results of the Bear Creek sampling click the icons near Sheridan to the south of Denver.

Frani: I’m standing outside the Denver Art Museum with Sarah Anderson of Denver Public Works and Jon Novick of Denver Environmental Health.

Sarah Anderson: Other than behavior change, the other way to reduce pollutants in our waterways is to build green infrastructure.

Frani: I met them here to see an example of this so-called green infrastructure—but to my untrained eye all I see is a landscaped area with two humongous sculptures of cows.

Sarah: You often see people with blankets out there having a picnic.

Green Infrastructure Frani: And why not? It’s a great spot with trees, grasses, and rocks—and, of course, the bovines—but this landscape is leading a double life.

Sarah: It’s a flood control facility; along with [that] it provides water quality. It uses soils and vegetation to treat stormwater runoff. The runoff goes into the pore space below ground and is captured there, and the plant roots uptake it. I have seen green infrastructure all over, and it doesn’t matter where you are—I find that vegetation loves dirty runoff. It just thrives.

Frani: There are numerous landscaped areas like this around Denver—quietly and passively cleaning water—and more on the way as the city works to prevent runoff of, not only E. coli, but also other pollutants from reaching the river. And, says Jon Novick of Denver Environmental Health, water quality in the South Platte has definitely improved.

Jon Novick: Denver Environmental Health has been collecting samples in the South Platte since the late Sixties, and when you look at the data, there has been significant improvements to water quality—orders of magnitude. But it’s this last little piece—getting us to safe for fishable and swimmable—that we still left to accomplish that’s proving to be very challenging.

Frani: Challenging, and possibly confusing. It’s a balancing act between trying to get people to care about the river—yet tell them it’s not quite clean enough to play in.

Jon: Most of the time when the weather is warm and people want to be in the water it really isn’t safe. The bacteria levels are high, and people who are getting in the water are putting themselves at risk of getting sick. At the same time, the city has been actively developing those areas to encourage people to interact with the water, so we’re walking a fine line of how do you invite people and encourage them to be engaged and improve water quality, but not put them at risk of something.

Frani: So the city has taken a “build it and they will come” approach by developing green spaces along the Platte where people will want to spend time—and—hopefully like them so much they’ll become more invested in keeping the river clean.

Sarah: I think getting the trails and the parks along the river was a very important first step in making people aware of the river, caring about the river. And the next step is to make the quality of the water in the river better.

PullQuote_SarahAnderson Frani: And while green infrastructure is just one of many tools the city is using to improve river health, Jon is quick to add they can’t get there without everyone pitching in.

Jon: The city can’t do all this alone. We need people to be responsible stewards for area surface waters. It means not fertilizing before a storm, so it doesn’t wash into the street. Picking up after your pet. Picking up your litter and throwing it in a trash receptacle.

Frani: Back at Bear Creek, Rachel and Stephen are wrapping up from a very long day. I ask her what keeps her going at this all these years, and she’s quick to answer. Being able to wade into a local creek and stream without worry—that should be a birthright.

Rachel: I would love to see people who can walk down to Bear Creek, mess around in it, play in it to their hearts’ content. Still be real safe and feel like, I love to live in this city. This is awesome. This is a great amenity that I can walk to from my home. 💧

This is the second segment in our series on the South Platte River. Listen to all the stories:

"How a Flood Changed the Course of a River—for the Better"

"Leave No Trace"

"Hell and High Water"


Sound Files

This story is available for download at PRX.org and Audioport.org. It cannot be broadcast or reproduced without the permission of H2O Media, Ltd.


Groundwork Denver

With the support of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Groundwork Denver and its partners created a non point source watershed plan for urban Bear Creek in 2014. The primary goals of the plan include ongoing water quality sampling, partnership building, and community education and stewardship.

The segment of Bear Creek between Kipling Parkway and the confluence with the South Platte River was listed on Colorado’s impaired waters list in 2008 because of high E. coli levels. E. coli is a bacterium that aids digestion in warm-blooded animals. Its presence in environmental waters indicates fecal contamination. Pathogenic bacteria, viruses and parasites can also be present where there is fecal contamination. Recreating in urban waters can pose public health risks when polluted water is ingested or enters the body through open cuts or wounds. Always wash your hands before eating or touching your face if you have come in contact with urban waters. Learn more.

Denver Department of Environmental Health

Denver Department of Environmental Health (DEH) has been monitoring the quality of water in Denver’s lakes and streams for over 45 years. Denver’s goal is to have fishable and swimmable waters in all our lakes and streams by 2020. Denver’s Departments of Environmental Health, Public Works, and Parks and Recreation are all working hard to ensure the City meets that goal. Here are a few things the City is doing to improve water quality in its streams and lakes:

The City has developed a program to improve storm water facilities in 10 priority areas with the intent of protecting water quality in the river. To date, the program has successfully reduced the amount of bacteria entering the South Platte River from most of the basins. It is still too soon to tell how those reductions have affected water quality in the South Platte River.

The City has identified areas where more facilities are needed to ensure storm water runoff is adequately treated to remove sediment, trash, and other pollutants. City staff are using this information to develop a plan to add water quality treatment facilities in those areas. Learn more.


Masthead photo:
Confluence Park, Kent Kanouse, Creative Commons

All other photos: Frani Halperin, H2O Media, Ltd.

Music: With the River's Flow by Rasmus Söderberg

Published: October 29, 2016  © Copyright H2O Media, LTD.

Journalism About Water and the Environment
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