The Chatfield Problem: Managing the Denver Metro Area’s Water Needs in Response to and in Anticipation of a Rapidly Growing Populace


Colorado has legal marijuana, a booming economy, and an excellent quality of life; it’s a popular place to be. The state’s population is expected to double between 2010 and 2050. Such a growth trend will put a tremendous amount of pressure on Colorado’s already limited water supply. Experts from a diverse array of fields have begun developing and implementing solutions designed to alleviate pressures Coloradans are facing today and preparing for major population growth. Urban sprawl accounts for a great deal of Colorado’s infrastructural growth, and transporting water to rapidly expanding suburban areas is presenting a substantial challenge to water management groups and supply planners.


The Denver Metro area is working to meet its expanding populace’s water needs, and organizations across the state are currently involved in efforts to improve water storage capabilities and water transportation infrastructure. Managing Denver Metro’s water needs involves a great number of parties, and balancing the sometimes-competing interests of those parties can present a challenge. Even though most parties complying with Denver Metro’s water management plan are interested in improving upon water storage and infrastructure, parties often differ on how plans should exact improvements.

In 1967, the United States Army Corps of Engineers began constructing the Chatfield dam on the South Platte River, and its construction led to the creation of the Chatfield Reservoir. In 1974, Colorado State Parks began leasing the reservoir and surrounding area for recreational use and, in 1976, the area was developed into what is now known as Chatfield State Park (“Chatfield”). The park is located 25 miles southwest of Denver, and it is one of Colorado’s most popular state parks. Chatfield has an area of nearly 5,400 acres open to a wide variety of recreational activities and hosting over 1.6 million visitors per year.

On May 29, 2014, the Omaha District of the United States Army Corps of Engineers (“Corps”) authorized the Chatfield Storage Reallocation Project (“Project”), a plan to reallocate portions of Chatfield in an effort to provide more water storage for suburbs and rural areas south of Denver. The Corps’ Project will require flooding 500 acres of the park in order to raise the current water level by up to twelve feet, when the reservoir reaches rare high water marks. Proponents of the Project have touted it as a restoration of the South Platte River – which runs through Chatfield – and plans for the Project say it will increase water yield by 8,539 acre-feet (or roughly 2.8 billion gallons) per year. The Corps asserts that the Project is environmentally and economically conscious, and that it is the least environmentally damaging option even though it will significantly change the topography and environment at Chatfield.

Some Colorado environmentalists aren’t buying the Corps’ proposal, however, and the Project is not without opposition. On October 8, 2014, the Audubon Society of Greater Denver (“Audubon Society”) filed a petition for review of the Corps’ decision to move forward with the Project. The Audubon Society would like to prevent the Project’s construction because the plan will destroy large groves of cottonwood trees, destroy habitats many species of birds and fish rely upon, and leave an unpleasant ring of mud flats around the reservoir. In its complaint, the Audubon Society alleged violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act. According to the complaint, the Audubon Society strongly believes that the Project will irreparably destroy the nature Chatfield visitors enjoy, that the destruction of natural areas will result in revenue losses, and that those losses will negatively impact parks across the state that are partially funded by Chatfield’s large number of visitors. The Audubon Society asserts that authorities have summarily dismissed alternative plans that would be less damaging and less expensive. In submissions to the Corps, the Audubon Society has put forth ideas for alternative plans: in one it suggested using offsite gravel pits adjacent to Chatfield for additional water storage, and in another it suggested using a different reservoir, Rueter-Hess, to supplement water storage needs. The Corps dismissed both ideas in its decision without clearly showing why these alternatives were not as or more reasonable than the Chatfield Project. While the Corps and other supporters of the Project have argued that plans include the creation of new wildlife habitats and the replacement of park structures, the resulting damage would significantly change and impact all wildlife, vegetation, and visitors who rely on Chatfield.

The Water Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency partnership (“WISE”) is working on a plan parallel to the Project. The WISE partnership includes Denver Water, Aurora Water, and ten other water districts, and the partners are interested in improving upon water infrastructure across the Denver Metro area. On October 21, 2014, Denver Water and the South Metro Water Supply authority agreed to pay thirty-four million dollars to purchase the Western Waterline from the East Cherry Creek Valley District, and the purchase will allow for more water to be delivered to districts in the south metro Denver area. While the Western Waterline will not provide a complete alternative to the Project, it will increase districts’ abilities to move, share, and reuse water. The Corps oversees WISE like it does the Project, and because of the shared interests of WISE and the Project, the two should be considered and implemented together. As of now, however, the Corps is not conjunctively approaching the two projects. Interestingly, when it comes to investing in WISE and/or the Project, water districts in the south metro Denver area are currently being selective about which to support, and several districts that initially supported the Project have shifted (or are in the process of shifting) support to WISE and other options because of the Project’s damage and cost.


As Denver’s metropolitan areas continue to expand, and as those areas’ populations continue to grow, the water management groups will face great challenges arising from the scarcity of water. Groups with sometimes-divergent interests will be forced to compromise during the process of creating and implementing solutions, and litigation will likely play a large role in determining the speed and direction of projects. Water providers developing solutions must take into consideration potential environmental and societal costs, and they must take steps to mitigate damages. Even where the scarcity of water presents immediate challenges, Coloradans will expect careful, well-thought-out solutions that do the least possible damage to natural areas. Colorado’s many environmental advocacy organizations will likely commence litigation when and where they feel less damaging alternatives are available as solutions.


The title image is an aerial shot of Chatfield Reservoir, including the dam and portions of the state park. This image was produced by a government official in his/her position as an employee and is therefor part of the public domain. The government does not endorse this blog.



Cathy Proctor, Pipeline Deal Brings Denver’s South Suburbs Closer to New Water Supply, Denver Business Journal (Oct. 30, 2014, 5:00 AM),


Alan Prendergast, Chatfield Reservoir: Lawsuit Claims “Massive Environmental Damage” From Project, Denver Westword (Oct. 10, 2014, 12:50 PM),


Bruce Finley, Chatfield Reservoir Water Supply Project OK’d by Feds, Faces Lawsuit, Denver Post (Oct. 09, 2014, 12:52 PM),


Chatfield Reservoir Reallocation Project, Colorado Water Conservation Board, (last updated Oct. 2014).


Chatfield History, Colorado Parks & Wildlife,