Enjoying and Protecting the River

Recreation in and admiration for the beauty of the Cache la Poudre River, as well as its canyon and valley, have played an important role in the settlement of Fort Collins and the area’s water distribution. Just as people today appreciate the beauty of the area, early travelers marveled at its crystal clear waters “all the way down to the confluence of the Platte,” profusion of trout, adjacent green pastures, and dramatic rock formations in the canyon. Once such traveler, J. R. Todd, a member of a group from Iowa passed through in 1852, reminisced,

We, of the present day, call it the beautiful valley, and it is so, with its fine farms, its green fields, its growing cities, towns and villages and its beautiful homes, but with all the touches of this civilization, it is no more beautiful now, it never can appear as beautiful to anyone as it appeared to this band of young adventurers on the June mornings in 1852, clothed in that garb that Nature placed there.1

The Cache la Poudre River Valley’s beauty and advertised abundance attracted many individuals and families. The Arapaho and Northern Cheyenne used the river for years before homesteaders from the United States and Europe populated the area. In the 1840s and 1850s, fur trappers sought pelts of animals along the river, and miners used the river’s water in their search for gold and other minerals a decade later. By the 1860s, others settled in the valley along the river and, as J. R. Todd wrote, constructed farms and towns. The U.S. Army established a camp on the banks of the Cache la Poudre River during the Civil War to protect settlers and the thousands of people who traveled west on the Overland Trail from bandits and Indian attacks. Boosters established an agricultural colony in 1872 after the Army abandoned the camp and took the name Fort Collins for their community.2

Workers set cabbage plants in an irrigated field in the early 1900s. Courtesy of the Papers of Delph E. Carpenter and Family, Water Resources Archive, Colorado State University

Workers set cabbage plants in an irrigated field in the early 1900s. Courtesy of the Papers of Delph E. Carpenter and Family, Water Resources Archive, Colorado State University

In Northern Colorado’s arid climate, the valley’s water resources proved inadequate for farmers almost immediately. The Cache la Poudre River could not meet the demands of its settlers without alteration. To combat aridity, residents put the river to work. They dug irrigation canals and diverted water from the river. The dams, canals, houses, factories, roads, and fields they built to make life in the valley possible also changed the amount of water flowing in the river, and the household and industrial waste they generated muddied and polluted the river.3

A camper paddles a canoe at the Zimmerman's "outdoor lodge." Photo from The Poudre: a Photo History by Stanley R. Case (1995)

A camper paddles a canoe at the Zimmerman’s “outdoor lodge.” Photo from The Poudre: a Photo History by Stanley R. Case (1995)

Even while farmers, town boosters, and industrialists altered the landscape in the Cache la Poudre River Valley, residents and tourists continued to see the river, especially the river in the canyon, as a site of recreation. In his 1911 History of Larimer County, Colorado, Ansel Watrous noted that Home and Cherokee Park, settlements along the river in the mountains, boasted hotels with modern amenities. These resorts drew tourists from the Eastern U.S. who came to enjoy the vistas and the camping, hunting, and fishing. Rustic Lodge, Indian Meadows Resort, the Elkhorn Hotel, and the Log Cabin Hotel also beckoned tourists to the shores of mountain lakes and streams. Many establishments changed owners several times, but they thrived well into the mid-twentieth century.4

Agricultural water users did not ignore the health of the river entirely while building irrigation infrastructure. The anxieties of farmers and ranchers who worried that sawmills would damage the watershed on which they depended for irrigation water and an interest in preserving the recreational opportunities led to conservation efforts for the upper reaches of the Cache la Poudre River in the 1890s. Stockgrowers Rollin Q. Tenney and John G. Coy and Colorado Agricultural College professor Louis G. Carpenter led efforts to establish a national forest reserve that surrounded all three forks of the Cache la Poudre River. Many other Fort Collins residents did not support federal control of the mountainous public lands, but in the early 1900s, supporters of the forest reserve won. The reserve officially became Roosevelt National Forest in 1932. The national forest solved some problems, but created others. For the next century, the reserve brought irrigation companies and municipalities into conflict with the federal government over water for irrigation and urban consumption versus preservation and recreation repeatedly.5

The timber and agricultural industries changed the Cache la Poudre River’s watershed, but the effects of hunting, fishing, and camping also took their toll. Concerned about heavy fishing’s effects on trout populations and understanding how important fishing tourism was to the Cache la Poudre River area, the Colorado Department of Game and Fish (now the Colorado Department of Wildlife) bought the Zimmerman Ranch, Keystone Hotel, several ponds, and the Home Ditch No. 4 and established the Poudre River Rearing Unit in 1948. The unit restocked the river’s game fish, nursing fingerlings (young fish) hatched at the Bellvue-Watson Hatchery. During the last sixty years, the hatchery and restocking sites have become popular tourist sites. Anglers and government officials have disagreed over the program’s effectiveness ever since.6

Courtesy of the University Historic Photograph Collection, Colorado State University

Aerial view of Fort Collins looking WSW over the river taken in 1929. River oxbow and Buckingham appear in bottom left quadrant of image. Courtesy of University Historic Photograph Collection, Colorado State University Archives and Special Collections

In Fort Collins, many residents located the Cache la Poudre River as it flowed through the city as a place to relax and play. This was especially true for children who grew up in the Buckingham neighborhood when an oxbow in the river flowed directly next to the neighborhood. Frank Martinez and Debra Bueno recalled the river as the only place to hang out, and they constructed forts, caught wild animals, swam, ice skated, and gathered apples and wild spinach. Adults and children caught fish in the river. For the city’s other citizens, parks supplied by irrigation water from the river were popular in the early twentieth century as well. Sheldon Lake at City Park and Lindenmaier Lake north of the river became popular places to picnic, swim, fish, and boat. Residents expected to have fun in and by the water.7

After World War II, Fort Collins like other towns and cities on the Front Range experienced a dramatic population boom. Most of the people moving to the area were not farmers, and the environmental movement sweeping the country also came to Fort Collins in the mid-twentieth century. While these people placed greater demands on the area’s water supply, they also viewed the Cache la Poudre River primarily as a source of recreation and beauty rather than a working river. While farmers had adopted techniques for greater water efficiency, such as lining their canals and laterals and choosing alternatives to flood irrigation, runoff from their fields also contaminated the river with pesticides and fertilizers. Rather than admiring the 100-year-old system of dams and ditches that had enabled irrigated agriculture in the dry region, residents influenced by environmentalism became upset about the toxic chemical run-off that agricultural, municipal, and industrial users put into the Cache la Poudre River.8

Environmentalists had a case. Despite the federal 1948 Water Pollution Control Act, water quality in Fort Collins was not at acceptable levels. The Great Western Sugar factory proved the city’s greatest offender. In 1953, a U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare cited the plant for effluent discharges equivalent to the pollution caused by 710,000 people—more than any of the other Great Western factories in the state. Oxygen deprivation caused by the biochemical solids it released killed fish downstream. In 1965, another U.S. Health Department report stated that water quality at the mouth of the canyon was mostly clean, but “[a]t Fort Collins there is deterioration in quality due to the discharge of inadequately treated municipal and industrial waste waters in the Fort Collins area.”9

A competitor navigates around a gate during a slalom race on the Cache la Poudre River, May 29, 1966. Water sports, such as rafting and kayaking, have become increasingly popular on the river for the last 50 years. Courtesy Fort Collins Local History Archive C707

A competitor navigates around a gate during a slalom race on the Cache la Poudre River, May 29, 1966. Water sports, such as rafting and kayaking, have become increasingly popular on the river for the last 50 years. Courtesy Fort Collins Local History Archive C707

Fort Collins’ citizens began demanding more attention be paid to the health of the river. One way they did this was by seeking out federal protection for the river. In 1986, after lobbying on the part of many of Fort Collins’ residents, Congress designated 75 miles of the Cache la Poudre River a Wild and Scenic River, halting development along a large swath of the river as it flowed through Poudre Canyon. In 1996, the section from the edge of Roosevelt National Forest to the river’s confluence with the South Platte earned federal protection as the Cache la Poudre River National Water Heritage Area. Federal protection provided money for river habitat rehabilitation and community education. In the case of the Wild and Scenic River designation, it also proved advantageous to the burgeoning water sports industry. The opportunity for fly fishing, kayaking, and rafting in the protected upper reaches of the Cache la Poudre became an important part of tourism in the area, and when many of the rafting and fishing companies and outdoor gear outfitters based their businesses in Fort Collins, the city benefited from activities taking place miles upriver.10

Two bikers cycle along the Poudre Trail as it runs through Kingfisher Point Natural Area. Sixty years ago, this spot was the site of lime waste settling ponds for the Great Western Sugar Company factory north of the river. Photo by PLHC Staff

Two bikers cycle along the Poudre Trail as it runs through Kingfisher Point Natural Area. Sixty years ago, this spot was the site of lime waste settling ponds for the Great Western Sugar Company factory north of the river. Photo by PLHC Staff

Fort Collins’ inhabitants also pushed for river health and opportunities to recreate along the Cache la Poudre River as it flowed through Fort Collins. In the 1970s, they voted to construct a network of trails for cyclers, joggers, and walkers that ran parallel to the river and tributaries such as Spring Creek. In part to mitigate floods and in part to reclaim and beautify industrial areas along the river, the city’s parks department and later the natural resources department implemented a Natural Areas Program (NAP). The NAP turned old gravel quarries into wetland area, as in the case of Riverbend Ponds, and industrial waste sites into hay fields and open spaces, as in the case of Kingfisher Point. The Poudre Trail also ran through many of these natural areas, allowing residents to connect with the river while they relaxed or worked out. Fort Collins also became home to organizations interested in preserving and cleaning up the river, many of which also supported continued or increased recreation on the river. The Poudre River Trust, brewery owners, and others provided money for parks and natural areas, dam removal, and opportunities to play in and along the Cache la Poudre River. Many also lobbied for increased instream flows to aid fish populations, even going so far as to help purchase water rights to achieve desired levels.11

People bike and fish along the Cache la Poudre River in Fort Collins. Photo by PLHC Staff

The Poudre Trail allows for close recreational encounters with the Cache la Poudre River. Photo by PLHC Staff

When the environmental movement took hold in Fort Collins, its adherents’ attitudes brought them into conflict with both irrigators and municipal officials. While previous water supply conflicts had often played out between irrigators and cities, in the 1970s through the early 2010s, these two groups sometimes found themselves occasionally cooperating and facing opposition from environmentalists. Farmers and city officials worried about how to secure water supplies large enough to meet their needs as Larimer County’s population increased. Historically, the answer had been to build a transbasin diversion or add reservoirs to store water. After the Colorado-Big Thompson Project’s completion in 1954, though, irrigation companies and municipal water utilities confronted outright hostility from organized groups of suburban, middle class Fort Collins environmentalists when they proposed new storage projects, such as Grey Mountain Reservoir. Organizations like Friends of the Poudre worried about the destruction of canyons and wildlife habitat and negative effects on river levels. They wanted to the river to flow freely. They suggested that conservation and enlarging existing facilities could mitigate the need for new, large dams and reservoirs. Their efforts eroded the popularity of storage projects on the Cache la Poudre River in the 1980s and later, but irrigators, cities, and municipal water companies continued to explore large water storage projects, concerned that failure to obtain more water will force municipalities to continue diverting water from agriculture to urban useage.12

Today, environmentalists and recreational users join agricultural, municipal, and industrial interests in cooperation and competition for the Cache la Poudre River’s waters. Because many of the people who support environmental protection of and recreation on the river are business owners, water owners, taxpayers, and residents of Fort Collins and Larimer County, their opinions influence discussions of how individuals and groups should use the Cache la Poudre River, especially the city’s water utilities. In recent years, interest in the river’s recreation-based economic opportunities has also led to physical changes in Fort Collins beyond the addition of parks and natural areas near the river. Fort Collins is redeveloping its Downtown River District, the site of the city’s earliest industrial institutions, railroads, and, before that, old Fort Collins, into shops and housing directly against the river. The plan would bring more people into contact with the river recreationally, but while encouraging fun on the river, the development may also further erase Fort Collins citizens’ awareness of the Cache la Poudre as a working river that provides resources to agricultural and industrial users.

  1. Quoted in Ansel Watrous, History of Larimer County, Colorado (Fort Collins: MM Publications, 1911), 26-27. See also, Fitz Hugh Ludlow, The Heart of the Continent: a Record of Travel across the Plains and in Oregon, with an Examination of the Mormon Principle, (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1870), 201.
  2. Watrous, History of Larimer County, Colorado, 40-58, Rose Laflin, Irrigation, Settlement, and Change on the Cache la Poudre River (Fort Collins: Colorado Water Resources Research Institute, Colorado State University, 2005), 12-13.
  3. Laflin, Irrigation, Settlement, and Change on the Cache la Poudre River, 12-19; Carl McWilliams and Karen McWilliams, Agriculture in the Fort Collins Urban Growth Area 1862-1994, Historic Contexts and Survey Report (Fort Collins, CO: Carl McWilliams and Karen McWilliams, Cultural Resource Historians, 1995), 57-58.
  4. Watrous, History of Larimer County, Colorado, 40-41; Stanley R. Case, The Poudre: A Photo History (Fort Collins: Stanley R. Case, 1995), 60-113, 410-411; Norman Walter Fry, Cache La Poudre: “The River” As Seen from 1889, Second Printing, 17-19, 37-38, 49; Evadene Burris Swanson, Fort Collins Yesterdays (Fort Collins: Swanson, c.1993), 202.
  5. Evadene Burris Swanson, Fort Collins Yesterdays (Fort Collins: Swanson, c.1993), 200-203.
  6. Stanley R. Case, The Poudre: A Photo History (Fort Collins: Stanley R. Case, 1995), 410-411; Thomas L. Marshall, Trout Populations, Angler Harvest and Value of Stocked and Unstocked Fisheries of the Cache la Poudre River, Colorado (Fort Collins: Colorado State University, 1973), 1-2, 73. According to the Colorado Division of Game, Fish and Parks, resident and non-resident anglers spent more than $7.8 million while fishing in Larimer County in 1968 alone. See Kenneth C. Nobe and Alphonse H. Gilbert, A Survey of Sportsmen Expenditures for Hunting and Fishing in Colorado, 1968 (Fort Collins: Colorado Division of Game, Fish and Parks, 1970), 61.
  7. Interview of Frank Martinez and Debra Bueno by Tri Jordan Madrid and Zak Turley, December 13, 2005, Records of Cache la Poudre River History and Culture Oral History Project, Colorado State University Archives and Special Collections, Colorado State University; Jean Helburg, “An Anecdotal History of the Fort Collins Parks and Recreation Department, Fort Collins, Colorado,” http://www.fcgov.com/recreation/pdf/anecdotal_history.pdf.
  8. Laflin, Irrigation, Settlement, and Change on the Cache la Poudre River,84-85.
  9. United States Department of Health, Water Quality Control Study (1963), 13; Laflin, Irrigation, Settlement, and Change on the Cache la Poudre River, 86-88; Ron Sladek, “Great Western Sugar Historic Nomination Form,” (Historic Context Report, City of Fort Collins, 2013), 11, 28-31.
  10. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Cache la Poudre River National Water Heritage Area Act, 104th Cong., 1st sess, 1995, S. Rep. 104-188; Laflin, Irrigation, Settlement, and Change on the Cache la Poudre River, 84-87.
  11. Cache la Poudre Natural Areas Management Plan Update, City of Fort Collins, 2011, 124 and Appendix E, p. 88; Jean Helburg, “An Anecdotal History of the Fort Collins Parks and Recreation Department, Fort Collins, Colorado,” http://www.fcgov.com/recreation/pdf/anecdotal_history.pdf; Laflin, Irrigation, Settlement, and Change on the Cache la Poudre River, 99-100; “New Belgium Brewery Helps Fort Collins Acquire Poudre River Water Rights,” The North Forty News, accessed August 13, 2014, http://www.northfortynews.com/new-belgium-brewery-helps-fort-collins-acquire-poudre-river-water-rights/?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter.
  12. Laflin, Irrigation, Settlement, and Change on the Cache la Poudre River, 94-96; Dan Tyler, The last water hole in the west the Colorado-Big Thompson Project and the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Niwot, Colo.: University Press of Colorado, 1992), 424-426.

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