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Future engineers get chance of a lifetime visiting Gross Reservoir

CU student challenge: How, exactly, do you raise a dam?

Editor's Note: Jessie Strobel, a member of Denver Water's Public Affairs team who works on community outreach efforts for the Gross Reservoir Expansion Project, is a guest contributor on this story. 

Civil engineering students from the University of Colorado Boulder are getting a unique opportunity during their senior year.

For their capstone project, the students are tasked with creating their own design of Denver Water’s Gross Reservoir Expansion Project, which involves raising the height of Gross Dam by 131 feet. 

“It's an exciting opportunity to show students one of the premier water resource development projects happening not only in the West but in the United States,” said Jeff Martin, a former CU student and Denver Water’s program manager for the Gross Reservoir Expansion Project. 

“There's no replacement for the value of getting your feet dirty on a real-life project and seeing how it gets put together.”

Gross Dam, located in the foothills west of Boulder, was built in the 1950s with the intention to be raised in the future. The dam and reservoir are critical parts of Denver Water’s collection system.

The renovated dam will nearly triple the reservoir’s water storage capacity and create a more reliable water system for the utility that serves 1.5 million people in the Denver metro area.

Learn more about the expansion project at

Denver Water has been working on designs to raise the height of the dam since 2017. Construction began in 2022 and the project is expected to be completed in 2027.

Matthew Morris, the CU civil engineering professor for the senior capstone class, has partnered with Denver Water on other capital improvement projects at the utility due to the real-world experience it gives his students.

The CU students visited Gross Reservoir in January to see the construction site firsthand before beginning their own designs.

Engineering students from the University of Colorado Boulder visited Gross Reservoir in January. The students will create their own designs to raise the dam as part of their senior year capstone project. Photo credit: Denver Water.

“It’s great for the students to see the scale of a job like this with their own eyes. It’s valuable insight they’d never get from just looking at pictures or videos,” Morris said. 
Over the course of the semester, the students also will hear from members of the project’s design team during guest lectures on campus.

“We’re giving the students a big challenge,” said Doug Raitt, construction manager for the Gross Reservoir Expansion Project. “Figuring out how to raise a dam with their limited knowledge of the process is a big lift that we’re asking of them, but it really immerses them in the entire process, not only of design but also construction.”

The students enjoyed their tour of Gross Dam and said they are up for the challenge.

Jeff Martin, Gross Reservoir Expansion Project program manager, visited the CU Boulder campus to talk about the Denver Water project and the field of engineering. Photo credit: Denver Water.

“It seems pretty daunting initially, but I'm sure throughout the semester we'll be able to make some moves and figure it out,” said Michael Colpack, a CU engineering student.

Chloe Snellgrove is another student in the class who said she’s excited by the opportunity for hands-on experience.

“Having exposure to a project like this this early on in our lives is going to be super helpful for all of our careers,” Snellgrove said. 

Read the history behind the expansion.

Morris said he doesn’t give the students actual plans of how to raise the dam, but instead gives them a path to find solutions so they can work through real problems as a team.

Over the course of the semester, the students will complete their designs and present them to a panel of judges who will pick finalists and winning teams.

“Every year the students surprise themselves,” Morris said. “They start out and it's very overwhelming, but in the next couple of months it's going to come together, and I think they're going to be happy with the results.” 

Hear Denver Water’s Jeff Martin talk about the Gross Reservoir Expansion Project:

Raitt said the partnership between CU and Denver Water is an opportunity for those working on the project to give back to the field of engineering. 

“This is their future that they're seeing and we’re hoping to lend a helping hand to these future leaders as they head into the engineering business,” Raitt said. 

Meet the previous groups of CU engineering students who explored Denver Water projects. 

In the past, CU students have focused their capstone projects on Denver Water’s Hillcrest treated water storage facility and Northwater Treatment Plant.

“Denver Water has been a spectacular partner with CU Boulder,” Morris said. “We couldn't ask for a better partnership to give the students an experience they wouldn't get anywhere else.”