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Remodeling and restoring rivers — for trout and those who hook them

Denver Water teams with key partners to tackle yet another major river improvement project benefiting West Slope habitat and anglers.

David Bennett, Denver Water's director of Water Resource Strategy, displays a rainbow trout benefiting from habitat upgrades to Fraser Flats west of Winter Park. Photo credit: Denver Water.


It’s not exactly the remodeling work you see on HGTV's Property Brothers, but Denver Water and its partners have wrapped up another big river restoration project that the trout — and the people who like to catch them — will enjoy for years to come.

The Williams Fork River Restoration Project tackled a nearly 1-mile stretch of Williams Fork near the town of Parshall within the Kemp-Breeze State Wildlife Area. Denver Water and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, with the support of Grand County Learning By Doing partners, joined forces to get the job done.

Instead of knocking down walls and placing new tile, workers are reshaping the river channel in ways that create far better living and spawning quarters for trout and the bugs that they eat.

“We are restoring these river reaches to create conditions for trout and other aquatic species to thrive,” said Jessica Alexander, lead environmental scientist for Denver Water. “Many factors combine to alter waterways and degrade fish habitat, but through these partnerships we can repair and improve the river’s ecological function and increase fish populations.”

The improvements are designed to improve habitat diversity for all life stages of trout. Workers are reshaping the channel and removing sediment to create deeper pools and creating more variety in rock riffles and point bars, all of which give trout greater opportunity to survive and reproduce in larger numbers.

A newly construction "point bar" (left) and cobble stabilizing the opposite bank on the Williams Fork River help direct lower flows to the central channel and can also create depth and pools attractive to fish. This work, completed in fall 2019, was key to the Williams Fork River restoration project in a reach within the Kemp-Breeze State Wildlife Area. Photo credit: Denver Water.


“Williams Fork is one of the real jewels of our state wildlife areas, and the project has effectively addressed some habitat shortcomings that we had observed over the past decade,” said Jon Ewert, Colorado Parks and Wildlife aquatic biologist based in Hot Sulphur Springs. “It’s a whole different river now, with far more good quality fish habitat. The angling public would not have enjoyed these benefits without strong partnerships between CPW, Denver Water, Grand County and other entities.”

The Kemp-Breeze State Wildlife Area is one of several river improvements Denver Water and various partners have tackled over the last seven years.

The work is tied to commitments in the landmark Colorado River Cooperative Agreement of 2013 and, in certain cases, through its permit with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to address impacts of the Gross Reservoir Expansion. A glance at some of the projects:

  • Since 2013, Denver Water has partnered with the Colorado Department of Transportation, Grand County and the town of Winter Park to capture traction sand that comes off Highway 40 and accumulates in the Fraser River. Capture and removal of the sediment has translated to removal of nearly 2,500 tons of sand and dramatic improvements in water quality and trout habitat downstream.
  • Restoration of the channel and banks on the Fraser Flats section of the Fraser River west of Winter Park in 2017. The work included willow plantings that will shade the river and help to reduce water temperatures. It resulted in a significant increase in the fish population — and attracted anglers to a 1/2-mile section opened to public fishing. This work was led by the collaborative partnership called Grand County Learning By Doing — a diverse group of water-linked organizations on both sides of the Continental Divide, the formation of which was a direct outcome of the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement.
  • Starting in 2018 and ending in the summer of 2019, Denver Water partnered with the city of Boulder to restore a 2-mile section of South Boulder Creek severely damaged in the record floods of 2013. The project targeted habitat improvements to support rainbow trout.
  • In early fall 2019, Denver Water completed improvements to the Williams Fork River just upstream of the Williams Fork Reservoir. These changes are similar to the work just completed below the reservoir on the Kemp Breeze State Wildlife Area.

Denver Water lead environmental scientist Jessica Alexander explains improvements to the Fraser River following work in the Fraser Flats section of the river. Rock cobble on the opposite bank helps stabilize and narrow the channel, creating deeper water at low flows. Photo credit: Denver Water.


“Grand County appreciates Denver Water’s commitment to Learning By Doing and moving forward to implement much needed improvements for our rivers, including voluntary environmental bypass flows, ahead of the required timeline and triggers in the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement,” said Ed Moyer, assistant county manager for Grand County.

Wildlife biologists say the work at Kemp-Breeze has already shown significant results. Anglers are catching good-sized trout in new pools recently created as part of the Williams Fork River Restoration Project.

Before the work began, there were only three low-water pools in the project reach capable of sheltering fish. Now, with the project completed, there are 12. This means fish will have much better habitat and anglers will have significantly improved fishing opportunities along the scenic stretch of river located in the Kemp-Breeze State Wildlife Area.

An "aquatic organism passage" replaced a deteriorating concrete culvert upstream of Williams Fork Reservoir. The work, conducted by Grand County, complimented efforts by Denver Water and its partners to improve fish habitat in a degraded river stretch. Photo credit: Denver Water.


Even as the latest restoration on Williams Fork River is wrapping up this October, more projects are planned.

“There is more beneficial river work to be done in the years to come,” Alexander said. “We’ve learned a lot from these projects from work on the ground, as well as how important partnerships are to their success.”