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Opinion: CSU and Denver Water research water in the West

The opening of the Hydro building will bring healthy water to Colorado.

Editor’s note: This opinion piece by Jim Lochhead, CEO/Manager of Denver Water, and Tony Frank, chancellor of Colorado State University System, originally ran in The Denver Post on Jan. 6, 2023.

Left, Tony Frank, the chancellor of the Colorado State University System, and right, Jim Lochhead, CEO/Manager of Denver Water. Photo credit: CSU Spur.

Back in 2017, at the Biennial of the Americas, Colorado State University and Denver Water announced plans to work together to support a new future for water research, policy, education and innovation. This week, that vision comes fully to life with the opening of the Hydro building on the CSU Spur campus at the National Western Center.

Historically, water has been viewed through the lens of starkly different choices. Do we use it for agricultural lands and food production, urban life and expansion, recreation and the environment — or something else?

When CSU and Denver Water announced our partnership, we chose not to view water that way. We didn’t want to focus solely on the water needs of agriculture (a primary concern for CSU), nor just on issues connected to municipal water supplies (where Denver Water is focused).

Instead, we approached it as all just water — a life-giving, flexible, finite resource that has to work for all of us, an approach much more closely tied to that of the Indigenous people who relied on the life-giving flows of the South Platte long before there were cities here. And we wanted to bring great minds, experimentation and learning about water together in one place where we could collectively focus on addressing the complex water challenges facing all sectors of our state and the American West.

Hydro is that place, and we’re honored to open its doors to the people of Colorado.

CSU Spur, with funding from the State of Colorado, is a three-building complex at the National Western Center nestled up against the Platte River. It’s a place where people of all ages and education levels can explore learning, research, and demonstrations connected to food, water, and human and animal health. The Vida building, focused on human and animal health, opened a year ago. The Terra building, which opened this past summer, spotlights food and agricultural systems.

The partnership between CSU and Denver Water is centered in the third building at Spur, Hydro (named for the Greek word for water), which opens this week in conjunction with the National Western Stock Show.

With its physical connectivity to the Platte, and a backyard space demonstrating the concepts of headwaters and watersheds,

Hydro is uniquely positioned as a resource for teaching about the importance of water and how it flows to different users and communities. But for the people of Denver, its importance is even greater. Hydro will be the home to Denver Water’s new water quality lab, dramatically expanding our ability to ensure a safe and reliable water supply for the people we serve.

The lab is responsible for ensuring 1.5 million people across the Denver metropolitan area have safe, clean drinking water that meets all state and federal standards. Denver Water currently performs nearly 200,000 tests every year to monitor water quality and the effectiveness of our treatment and distribution systems. Thanks to the expanded capacity and state-of-the-art equipment at CSU Spur, the new laboratory will provide capacity for nearly three times as many tests.

The location at Spur also positions Denver Water to interact more closely with the University’s scientists and students. Planning for the water demands of tomorrow requires innovation and understanding as customer needs and policies surrounding water in our state are changing. It requires that all voices be brought into the mix of how water is discussed and treated. The partnership at Spur will help Denver Water provide leading solutions to water challenges for its customers, the state, and West in a more public-facing and engaging way than ever before.

The quality of the water around us — knowing what it is, how it changes, and how it affects our food, our health, and our lives — will be crucial as we address new and emerging issues and uses, from the “forever chemicals” moving from consumer products into our environment to the cutting-edge use of wastewater to heat new buildings at the old Stock Show complex. Water quality also underpins the rehabilitation work underway at the edge of the Spur campus, where the South Platte River is becoming a place for recreation and wildlife habitat.

This is a neutral, science-based campus focused on finding solutions to real-world problems. We are interested in helping bring together people representing agencies and interests across many disciplines to work on challenges common to all of us. And the location at the National Western Center allows us to leverage the entire site to educate the water industry and the many types of visitors to the main NWC campus — starting with the North Denver community. Free educational programming will be a cornerstone of this campus for everyone.

When we announced this partnership back in 2017, we were inspired by the Biennial of the Americas and its mission to create connections, build community, and inspire change. With Hydro, that mission is coming into focus in ways that will serve Colorado and its water future for generations to come.

Denver Water's water quality team performs nearly 200,000 tests every year to ensure the water delivered to 1.5 million customers every day is clean and safe. Photo credit: Denver Water.