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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.

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A small grey vehicle, with a cab for two or three people, with a pickup bed in the back, and tank treds where the tires would be.
Denver Water’s new utility terrain vehicle, dubbed "UTV" for short, is equipped with tank-like tracks to go through snow. Photo credit: Denver Water.

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. 

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Two men lower an orange pad into the snow to form a bridge over a drainage for the utility terrain vehicle to drive over.
Denver Water crews place traction pads over a drainage to make sure the UTV doesn’t get stuck. Photo credit: Denver Water.

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 
problems.

Once on-site, the team members either hike or put on snowshoes to reach the creek to collect water 
samples.

“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 
the creek. 

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Two men stand in the snow next to a mountain creek. One holds a pole, attached to a bottle that will scoop up a water sample.
Water quality technicians Christian Ramos and Ryan Lee collect samples of water from Vasquez Creek. The Vasquez Tunnel in the background brings water under the Continental Divide from the Jones Pass area of Grand County. Photo credit: Denver Water.

“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

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Two men, wearing masks to follow COVID-19 protocols, conduct tests on the back of their utility terrain vehicle.
Ramos (front) and Lee (back) conduct several tests of the water samples on-site. Samples are collected from Vasquez Creek every month to monitor potential changes in the water quality. Photo credit: Denver 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 
facilities. 

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.

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A bottle attached to a pole scoops up a water sample from a mountain creek.
Collecting and testing water samples from mountain creeks is just one part of delivering water to 1.5 million people every day. Photo credit: Denver Water.