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Wonders at Williams Fork

Grand County middle-schoolers notice what’s hidden in plain sight.

Maybe you’ve been in this situation before. Relatives come to visit from out of town and during a walk through your neighborhood, they point out something you’d never noticed before. Maybe it was a towering fountain in a back yard, a multi-level tree house or a unique business. Seemingly new, but after being pointed out, you realized you’d walked by it a thousand times.

Something similar happened to a group of seventh-graders from West Grand School District recently.

Since 2010, the Grand County Water Information Network (known as “GCWIN”) has facilitated a program called "Watershed Week" for the sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders in Grand County. The event consists of three full-day field trips for each grade level on which students visit various sites to learn about natural and community water systems.

As part of this year’s event, GCWIN’s Kayli Foulk led 26 seventh-graders from West Grand Middle School on a morning of studying stream health at Reeder Creek near Parshall and an afternoon touring Denver Water’s Williams Fork Reservoir. Which leads us back to phenomenon of noticing the obvious for the first time.

Seventh-graders from West Grand Middle School leaving a tour from inside Williams Fork dam.

With a capacity of more than 31 billion gallons of water, Williams Fork is difficult to miss. It’s the second largest body of water in Grand County, and it’s renowned for its beauty and recreational amenities. Many of the students had visited in the past and enjoyed the fishing, camping or car-top boating.

But as the 12- and 13-year-olds climbed off the bus, what caused the whoas, and ohhhs and wows was the 217-foot dam. From most vantage points around the nearly 16 miles of shoreline, the comparatively tiny 600-foot crest of the dam (the uppermost part sticking up above the waterline) is difficult to pick out against the majestic background. Even from a boat in the middle of the reservoir, it is tough to see because generally only a few feet of the dam is ever visible from the surface.

For the following hour, Williams Fork caretakers Ryan Rayfield and Nathan Hurlbut led the students around the part of the reservoir downstream of the dam where you can’t even see the surface and explained how the facility is used.

“You live here, and you work here?” one student asked.

“Of course,” Rayfield answered.

Then a realization. “Wait, what if the dam breaks?”

After a chorus of ohhhs, “Wouldn’t you be under water?”

Rayfield chuckled, “We’re here to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

“Does this water go to Denver?” another student asked.

“No,” Rayfield replied. “We release water from Williams Fork to make sure the people downstream get their water even if our caretakers at Dillon Reservoir send some of that water to Denver. Think of it like a bank. We can make a withdrawal at Dillon, and then a deposit back into the river here.”

“Ohhh.” Heads nodded.

From there, the students got to do what even fewer people get to do: go inside a dam. At Williams Fork, that trip adds to the discussion the subject of hydropower.

“You make electricity here?”

“Yes, the flow of water out of the reservoir turns a turbine, and that generates up to 3.1 megawatts of electricity,” said Hurlbut.

Blank stares.

“Think of it like a wind turbine, only with water going through pipes big enough to walk through spinning it instead of air.”

“Ahhhh,” the communal reply.

“Where does the electricity go?”

“All over Grand County,” Hurlbut added. “It probably powers most of your homes and your school in Kremmling. We can generate enough electricity to power about 3,000 homes.”

“Whoa!” Even the adult chaperones joined in then.

Education at its finest. Turning the seemingly complicated into simple. Making the abstract concrete. Making visible what was under your nose all the time.

As the students climbed back on the bus, what had started out as a familiar lake had become a reservoir. A workplace. A power plant. It had become an ecosystem, a piggy bank for snowflakes and most importantly, the home of new friends and members of their community.