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Investing $2.3 billion into the system serving 1.5 million people

How Denver Water is protecting the water system now — and preparing for the future.

Ensuring a system that is providing clean, safe water to 25% of the state’s population will continue delivering requires taking the long view when it comes to maintenance and upgrades. 

At Denver Water, projects from replacing water mains to building a new treatment plant are carefully vetted to ensure they will bolster the system as it exists today and for the decades ahead. 

“Our mission is to deliver a clean, safe, reliable water supply to 1.5 million people, and also to sustain our vibrant communities for years to come,” said Jim Lochhead, the CEO/Manager of Denver Water.

To do that, the utility expects to invest about $2.3 billion into the system during the next 10 years, from large projects to regular inspection and maintenance programs designed to ensure the system is flexible, resilient and efficient. 

Denver Water’s approach has been recognized repeatedly by its peers in the water industry and others. 

Solar power panels on the roof of Denver Water’s Administration Building helped the building receive a LEED Platinum certification, signifying the sustainable aspects of its design and operation. Photo credit: Denver Water.

The American Water Works Association, the largest organization of water supply professionals in the world, named Denver Water the recipient of its 2022 AWWA Innovation Award for the Northwater Treatment Plant, which is under construction north of Golden.

The awards committee specifically called out the utility’s sustainable, scalable and streamlined design approach to the project, which leaves room at the site for future expansions as needed. 

The redevelopment of its Operations Complex near downtown has won several awards since its completion a few years ago, including a LEED Platinum certification for the utility’s Administration Building, just one of many the project received for its sustainable aspects. The building includes solar power panels on its roof and parking structures, a highly efficient radiant heating and cooling system and an on-site wastewater recycling system that treats water for reuse flushing toilets and irrigation. 

Read how customers help invest in their water system.

Here’s an overview of some of Denver Water’s work: 

Water storage

Work on the Gross Reservoir Expansion Project, the subject of more than 20 years of planning, got underway in April. Expected to be complete in 2027, the project will raise the height of the existing dam by 131 feet. 

The higher dam will nearly triple the amount of water that can be stored in Gross Reservoir, providing Denver Water with more flexibility to manage its water supply in the face of increasingly variable weather and snowpack patterns. 

The additional storage capacity also will provide a greater balance between Denver Water’s separate north and south water collection areas. 

Much of the work done on the expansion during 2022 and 2023 will be site preparation for the on-site quarry and concrete production plant and removing rock from the sides and bottom of the existing dam to make room for the new concrete. Workers also have been hydroblasting the face of the dam, removing a few inches of concrete, to leave a rougher surface for the new concrete to adhere to. 

At the height of construction, there will be as many as 400 workers on-site and when complete, the dam will be the tallest in Colorado. 

Get more details about the history behind the Gross Reservoir Expansion Project.

Lead Reduction Program

A major part of Denver Water’s investment forecast is the Lead Reduction Program, which launched in January 2020.

The water Denver Water delivers to customers is lead-free, but lead can get into drinking water as the water passes through old lead service lines that carry water from the water main in the street into the home. 

The program reduces the risk of lead getting into drinking water by replacing the estimated 64,000 to 84,000 old, customer-owned lead service lines at no direct cost to the customer. Households enrolled in the program are provided with water pitchers and filters certified to remove lead to use for cooking, drinking and preparing infant formula until six months after their lead service line is replaced.

It’s the biggest public health campaign in the utility’s history and through the end of September, more than 14,000 lead service lines have been replaced. 

Learn more about how a higher pH level protects customers from lead getting into drinking water. 

The program aims to replace about 4,500 lead service lines every year, and the utility is working through final approvals to accept federal funding. The money will allow the utility to replace an additional number of lead service lines (at no direct cost to the customer) above the 4,500 currently slated for replacement in 2023. This additional funding will help speed up the replacement program while keeping rates as low as possible for customers. 

In March 2020, Denver Water also raised the pH of the water it delivers to customers to help reduce the risk of lead getting into water as it passes through customers’ internal plumbing that may contain lead.

Northwater Treatment Plant

Work on Denver Water’s new, state-of-the-art Northwater Treatment Plant next to Ralston Reservoir north of Golden this year passed a milestone, with 2.5 million hours of work poured into its design and construction since 2016. 

The treatment plant, scheduled for completion in 2024, will include 14 buildings and be able to clean 75 million gallons of water per day. Its design left room for the plant to be expanded to clean up to 150 million gallons of water per day in the future as needed. 

During this last year, roofs have been placed on buildings, allowing workers to start installing electrical lines and HVAC equipment. 

Construction also has continued on the two giant water storage tanks, which will be mostly buried underground when complete. Each tank is capable of holding 10 million gallons of clean, safe drinking water. 

A new water quality laboratory

In early January 2023, the Hydro building on Colorado State University's Spur campus at the National Western Center north of downtown will open. 

It will house Denver Water’s new water quality laboratory, expected to become fully operational during 2023, and replaces a facility that has been tucked into the Marston Treatment Plant south of U.S. Highway 285 and South Wadsworth Boulevard, on the south side of Denver Water’s service area.

Denver Water’s new water quality laboratory, expected to be operational in 2023, is inside the Hydro building at the CSU Spur campus at the National Western Center north of downtown. Photo credit: Denver Water.

Locating Denver Water’s water quality laboratory in the midst of CSU's new Spur campus ensures the utility’s water experts will be working near researchers, scientists and others tackling issues surrounding water, agriculture and public health that are important to the metro area, state and region. 

Two other buildings are at the CSU Spur campus, Vida, which opened in January 2022 and focuses on life and public health, and Terra, which opened earlier this year and focuses on land and food. 

With the completion of the Hydro building, the campus will house experts dedicated to exploring how the three disciplines intersect — and interact — with each other. 

Ongoing investments

As the metro area grows and changes, its often an opportunity for Denver Water to upgrade older elements of its system — before new development takes place. 

That was exactly the situation at Loretto Heights in the southwest part of Denver. 

Upgrades to infrastructure that delivers water to downtown Denver took place before development of a new neighborhood at Loretto Heights. Photo credit: Denver Water.

The site is best known for the historic tower built in the 1890s as part of a boarding school and college. But buried under that same hill is a 575-foot-long concrete tunnel, 7 feet in diameter, used to deliver water from the Marston Treatment Plant in southwest Denver to the downtown area. 

Before construction on a new residential development at Loretto Heights began, Denver Water worked with the developer to do needed upgrades and repairs at the site before homes were built — and to avoid disrupting the new neighborhood later. 

Earlier this year, crews dug down to uncover pipes and valves installed a century ago, removed the four original valves, placed new pipes, installed a single new valve and repaired cracks inside the tunnel. 

Watch a video of the Loretto Heights project. 

Denver Water also is continuing its investment in replacing its water mains under streets and installing new ones where needed. The utility has more than 3,000 miles of pipe in its system, enough to stretch from Seattle to Orlando.

The utility is working toward a goal of replacing 1% of its installed water mains every year, or more than 145,000 feet of pipe. 

And in recognition that the drought in the Colorado River Basin affects us all, Denver Water and several large water providers from across the basin have committed to substantially expanding existing efforts to conserve water. 

Among the goals is replacing 30% of the nonfunctional grass in our communities — like that found in traffic medians —with trees and landscapes that have more benefits for our climate, wildlife and the environment.

Parking lot medians are no place for grass. Water-wise landscaping can offer beauty and save water. Photo credit: Denver Water.

Denver Water is working with partners — including local governments, fellow water providers, and experts in water use and landscapes — to develop programs that will help transform our landscapes and expand our indoor and outdoor conservation efforts. 

Being financially responsible 

Denver Water has a long been proactive with maintaining and improving its vast network of dams, pipes, canals and treatment plants — and planning ahead for the future.

And that work extends to the financial side of the utility. 

Denver Water doesn’t receive tax dollars or make a profit. Its infrastructure projects, day-to-day operations and emergency expenses, like water main breaks, are funded by a mixture of water rates, bond sales, cash reserves, hydropower sales and fees for new service (called System Development Charges).

And in this area too, Denver Water has received high marks. 

For a recent bond sale, which brought in about $200 million to invest into the system, rating agencies extended Denver Water’s existing triple-A credit rating, the highest available. The agencies cited multiple factors, including the utility’s strong financial management for the rating. 

The rating was just another example of how at Denver Water, sustainability isn’t just a word, it’s embedded throughout the organization, from its long-range planning for a warmer future to the training it provides to inspire its employees to go the extra mile for customers.