History of Denver Water

Early settlers

Long before the city of Denver was established, the South Platte River and Cherry Creek were oases for people who traveled the semi-arid Great Plains. These early travelers could do without many things, but not water. That's why pioneers, and the American Indians before them, camped along the banks of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River. The first residents of the area drank water directly from the creek and river. Surface wells and buckets of water sufficed for a while as a delivery system, but they soon proved inadequate. Irrigation ditches were the next step forward.

In 1867, City Ditch was completed, connecting the South Platte in the Littleton area to Capitol Hill. Inevitably, people started questioning water quality in open systems, and in this case it was with good cause. Shortly after City Ditch was completed, the city became alarmed that loose pigs were contaminating the ditch, raising the threat of cholera. The solution? City Council banished the pigs. In 1870, when the rapidly growing community had a population of almost 5,000, the Denver City Water Company was formed.

In 1872, with a large well, a steam pump and four miles of mains, Denver City Water Company began to provide water to homes. Contracts and companies came and went, with concerns about hydrant pressure turning up in the editorial pages of the papers.

Battle to provide water

Workers build a wood-stave pipe in this undated photo. In the early 1900s, many of Denver Water's conduits and large pipes were made of wood. Click image to enlarge (ID# 23.58.521).

Over the next two decades, 10 water companies fought, collapsed or merged. In 1892, the battle between two water companies became so fierce that the Citizens Water Company, hoping to drive the American Water Works Company of New Jersey out of business, culminated a price-cutting war by offering water for nothing. The Citizens Water Company eventually drove its competitor under.

Finally, Citizens Water Company was merged into the Denver Union Water Company in October 1894, along with several smaller companies serving various parts of growing Denver. Headed by Walter S. Cheesman and David Moffat, the Denver Union Water Company — predecessor of Denver Water — emerged to establish a stable system.

In 1886, the first infiltration (water treatment) system was installed on Cherry Creek, and in 1889 the Platte Canyon Filtration Plant was added to the system. This facility, high in the foothills, was renamed the Kassler Treatment Plant. By 1906, Denver water was being chlorinated to prevent cholera and typhoid.

This 1914 photo shows Cheesman Dam with water going over the spillway. This was a common sight until drought and growth of Denver made inroads on the storage supply. Click image to enlarge (ID# 263.*.1348).

Perhaps the most important engineering feat of the early years was the construction of Cheesman Dam and Reservoir on the South Platte River. When Cheesman was completed in 1905, it was hailed as the solution to Denver's water storage problems.

In the coming years, the system would expand to meet new demand, but Cheesman remains a major accomplishment and keystone for Denver's water needs.

It provides nearly 80,000 acre-feet of water to Denver and remains an important water storage facility in the system.

Denver Water is born

In 1918, Denver residents voted to create a five-member Board of Water Commissioners and buy the Denver Union Water Company's water system for about $14 million, creating Denver Water.
Workers pose for a photo in the Moffat Tunnel in this 1930 photo. Click image to enlarge (ID# 76.108.*). From that time on, Denver Water planned and developed a system to meet the needs of the people of Denver and the surrounding areas. Before World War II, Moffat Tunnel and Eleven Mile Canyon Reservoir were added to the system. Gross, Dillon and Williams Fork reservoirs were added in midcentury. The 23-mile Harold D. Roberts Tunnel was completed in 1962, bringing water to Denver from the other side of the Continental Divide.

Today, Denver Water’s service area covers more than 335 square miles, including the City and County of Denver and several suburban distributors.

A system of reservoirs networked by tunnels and canals provides water to more than a million people.

Three major treatment plants — Marston, Moffat and Foothills — maintain water quality under the watchful eye of the Denver Water Quality Control Laboratory.