Going off-road for one of Denver Water’s most unique jobs
A backcountry journey on a snow machine is just one step in ensuring safe drinking water.
Delivering water to 1.5 million people involves a wide variety of jobs and tools of the trade, including a
customized, all-terrain vehicle capable of trekking to backcountry streams that feed the water supply.
The vehicle is a new tool for Denver Water’s water quality operations team, which is tasked with collecting
7,100 samples of water year round from about 70 locations scattered across nine counties in the foothills
and mountains west of Denver.
One of the most remote locations the team visits — in all seasons and in all weather — is Vasquez Creek
in the mountains west of Winter Park in Grand County.
In mid-April, water quality technicians Christian Ramos and Ryan Lee headed up the creek in Denver
Water’s new utility terrain vehicle, dubbed “UTV” for short.
The machine looks like a mini-snowcat, with tank tracks instead of wheels to help it move over snow-
covered ground. It’s a customized version of an all-terrain vehicle designed for hauling people and
equipment through rough terrain.
Denver Water purchased the vehicle in 2020 to make it easier for its water quality technicians to reach
remote water sampling sites when mountain roads are buried in snow. Before the team had the vehicle,
workers hiked, snowshoed or cross-country skied to remote sampling sites during the winter months.
Ramos’ and Lee’s trek to the Vasquez Creek sampling site involved a 6-mile journey up a snow-covered
backcountry road. The mini-snowcat can hit speeds of around 20 miles per hour in the snow, but at times
must go slowly over steep hills, through snow drifts and over drainages.
“I would say this is one of the most remote places we go to collect water samples,” Ramos said.
Because the team makes water sampling trips in all types of conditions, they carry backcountry safety
gear in case of emergencies.
Crews have gotten stuck in snow drifts and had to use the vehicle’s winch to get free. They’ve had to
clear downed trees from the road to continue their trip. The team also carries traction pads to use if
needed to get through mud or deep snow.
The trip up Vasquez Creek typically takes about 30 minutes — if conditions are good and there are no
Once on-site, the team members either hike or put on snowshoes to reach the creek to collect water
“Denver Water collects its water from the mountains, so it’s important to monitor conditions in the streams
so we can see if there are any changes to the water,” Ramos said.
Once at the sampling site, Ramos and Lee use a pole with a bottle tied on the end to scoop up water from
“In the field we test for conductivity, dissolved oxygen, pH, temperature and turbidity,” Lee said.
Those parameters help measure the makeup of the water. The samples need to be tested in the field,
shortly after they’re collected from the creek, because those parameters are temperature dependent.
Additional water samples are collected and taken back to Denver Water’s water quality lab, where they
undergo more extensive testing for things like bacteria, nutrients, organic materials and metals.
The Vasquez Creek sampling site is part of Denver Water’s regular monitoring program. But the area will
be monitored even more closely than in the past, due to the 2020 Williams Fork Fire that ripped through
part of the forest where Denver Water captures water.
After wildfires, rivers and streams typically see higher amounts of sediment and debris, which can cause
problems for pipes and valves that deliver water. Added sediment can also impact water treatment
The water that Denver Water collects from the area that burned in the 2020 Williams Fork Fire flows
through two tunnels and empties into Vasquez Creek. The creek then drains into the Moffat Tunnel,
where it flows under the Continental Divide to the Front Range.
Testing water samples for turbidity in the field helps determine if there are high levels of materials, such
as debris or sediment, in the water. This gives a heads up to Denver Water’s treatment plant operators on
whether they will need to change the processes that clean mountain stream water to drinking water
standards when water from the burn area reaches the plant.
Denver Water samples Vasquez Creek and some other locations once a month. Other locations are
sampled four times per year.
“It’s a fun job and it’s fun to drive the new machine,” Lee said. “It’s great to be able to get outside and help
make sure we’re delivering safe water to our customers.”
Ryan Budnick contributed to this story.