Lifestyle & Luxury
Since 1883, the High Line Canal has been an artery through Denver. Today it offers a connection with nature for the more than 350,000 residents who live within a mile of its 71-mile path.
The original purpose of the High Line Canal was commercial. The canal was constructed to bring South Platte River water to settlers and farmers following a gold rush in 1859 near the confluence of the South Platte and Cherry Creek. With flumes, tunnels and 165 head gates, the Canal made it possible to irrigate more than 20,000 acres before it slowly disappeared back into a Platte tributary near Denver International Airport. But it’s been many years since the water flowed that far.
For those who now wander along the Canal on the multi-purpose pathway on a bike, on a horse or with the dogs, the dry bed may seem abandoned; cottonwood stumps serve as reminders of the Canal’s prior purpose. Nevertheless, the Canal still thrives as a place of natural beauty, creating an eco-corridor full of flora and fauna and providing a vein to nature for residents. Almost serendipitously, Denver now has a natural, organically-occurring urban greenway.
“Today, hundreds of communities around the world are busy planning greenways for their documented social, recreational and environmental benefits,” explained Harriet Crittenden LaMair, executive director of the High Line Canal Conservancy. “These communities are purchasing land, securing easements and spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build urban trails and greenways. Here, we have the High Line Canal—not designed by a famous landscape architect—but instead hand dug for the functional purpose of bringing water to a growing city. Those engineers and investors who built the canal in the 1880s unintentionally gifted the region one of its crown jewels and perhaps one of the longest and historic greenways in the country.”
The High Line Canal Conservancy, which was founded in 2014, has been working with Denver Water (the owners of the canal since 1924) and government officials to not only preserve this “jewel,” but also to enhance the canal and protect it for the future.
In 2016, the conservancy led an unprecedented outreach effort which engaged more than 3,500 citizens to learn from the public what they hoped for the future of the canal. The public was clear that their highest priorities were to keep the canal as a peaceful natural place, to connect and enhance the canal and to protect it forever. Today, the conservancy is busy designing enhancements and a framework to make the Community Vision Plan a reality.
In addition to preserving the canal as an urban greenway, part of the plan is to repurpose the interior of the canal. Denver Water reports that more than 80 percent of the water diverted to the canal seeps into the ground or evaporates prior to reaching a paying water customer, which is inefficient and not sustainable. In order to help determine a more effective use for the canal, the conservancy and its partners (including Urban Drainage and Flood Control District) have been actively studying and planning for how the canal can serve the region’s need for storm water management and filtration.
“It would mean more storm water would be directed into the canal,” LaMair said. “It would be managed carefully to avoid any flooding and long-term liability issues. Studies estimate that the canal would be wet for 100 more days a year on average and the storm water, when it left the canal, would be 40 percent cleaner.”
Naturally cleaning the storm water before it reaches our region’s waterways means cleaner rivers and streams. And while the storm water remains in the Canal, the cottonwood trees, plants and wildlife will benefit as well.
“It’s really a win-win,” LaMair said.
Today, the Conservancy is working with communities and partners along the canal to provide new signage, both directional and interpretive, underpass projects, safer crossings (currently there are 85 at-grade crossings) and an app to help with navigation and access. The conservancy has also divided the High Line Canal into five distinct “character zones” to showcase the diversity of the areas in which the path winds.
The story of the High Line Canal is still evolving. Thanks to the conservancy, this former water source for agriculture is entering a new chapter as a source of storm water filtration. But getting to this new chapter is a chronicle of compromise and collaboration. More than half of the conservancy’s funding is from private citizens. As more than 500,000 people use the High Line Canal each year, it seems fitting that it’s an equal effort between private citizens and governmental agencies.
Though the conservancy still has work to do—LaMair said that they are trying to march through the process as steadily as possible because all of the players are on board—she is already looking at a bright future. However, continued support and engagement from the citizens of the region is vital to ensure that the Canal’s future is reflective of the public vision.
“Imagine in years to come, when people come to Denver, many people will say ‘I want to do the High Line Canal’,” she said. “They will want to get on it near the airport and walk it all the way to Waterton Canyon. On their travels, they can visit different communities and see the growth of the region. Everyone needs a place to connect with nature and for hundreds of thousands of people, the canal is that place.”
High Line Canal Conservancy
915 S. Pearl St., Denver, CO 80209
The public can provide input by attending public meetings and visiting highlinecanal.org/framework to learn more.
Katie Coakley is a freelance writer based in Denver covering travel, beer and outdoor adventure. Her work has appeared in newspapers, magazines and national online publications. She enjoys long walks in the sunshine, especially on the High Line Canal.
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