Protecting the Poudre: The Rise of Environmentalism

From the 1860s well into the twentieth century, irrigators dammed and diverted water from the Cache la Poudre River to irrigate farmlands and provide water to cities and industries, but interest in conserving and protecting the watershed has also been part of the river’s story for more than a century. In the late 1890s, some farmers and ranchers, such as Rollin Q. Tenney and John G. Coy, worried about timber industry’s effects on the river and their ability to irrigate, and they campaigned for the establishment of a national forest surrounding the upper reaches of the river. Others bitterly disputed the idea, but the idea prevailed, and the area fell under federal oversight in 1905, receiving the name Roosevelt National Forest in 1932. Anxieties about river health rose again in the 1960s and 1970s, when residents in Northern Colorado began to realize that the river could not sustain the level of use and population growth it was undergoing. Post World War II, Fort Collins received an influx of non-agriculturalists and non-industrialists. These people saw the Cache la Poudre River primarily as a source of recreation and beauty rather than a working river. Additionally, some people became upset about the detrimental effects that agricultural and industrial use had on the scenic quality and overall environment health of the Cache la Poudre River. They worried that pesticides and other chemicals from agriculture, industry, and urban dwellers were finding their way into the river, contaminating the water source. On the other hand, farmer and municipalities worried about how they would secure enough of the river’s limited resources to supply their needs. Conflict over how to use the Cache la Poudre River erupted amongst Northern Coloradoans.1

In 1968, Congress passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which identified the Cache la Poudre River through the canyon as a potential candidate. A study completed in 1981 verified 83 miles of the Cache La Poudre River eligible for Wild and Scenic status.2 Those who utilized the water for agriculture and industry were worried that this designation as a Wild and Scenic River would prevent any future developments on the Cache la Poudre River. However, farmers and industrialists found themselves outnumbered by urbanites, environmentalists, and recreationists, who demanded a voice in the river’s use. Through much deliberation and mediation the community came to a compromise about the future of the river, and in 1986 a total of 75 miles were designated a Wild and Scenic River, while seven miles were left open for development.3

The protection of the Cache la Poudre River did not end with a Wild and Scenic River designation. Northern Colorado community members pursued protection for the lower portion of the river as well. They succeeded in 1996 when another portion of the river from Roosevelt National Forest through Greeley was designated as a National Water Heritage Area. The National Water Heritage Area covered 44 miles of the river and interpreted the area’s history of migration and water development. By 1996, between the National Wild and Scenic River and a National Water Heritage Area, most of the river was congressionally protected from further development.4

Partly because of its protected status, the Cache la Poudre River became a popular tourist attraction in Northern Colorado during the second half of the twentieth century. To help promote the health and preservation of the river, as well as attract more recreationists to the river, the City of Fort Collins reserved and reclaimed natural areas throughout the city along the river. The city placed trails through the natural areas as well to encourage joggers, bikers, and others to enjoy the Cache la Poudre River and its associated ecosystems. Additionally, businesses that used the Cache la Poudre River through the canyon for kayaking and white water rafting established offices in Fort Collins, creating a strong recreational tourism economy not only in Fort Collins, but much of Northern Colorado as well.5

Today, the Cache la Poudre River’s agricultural, industrial, municipal, and recreational stakeholders are again debating the river’s use. Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District and more than ten municipalities have proposed a called the Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP), which includes a new reservoir, Glade Reservoir, on the Cache la Poudre River. This project would divert up to 70 percent of the river’s flow during peak season, though only during wet years. Organizations such as Save the Poudre, are fighting against this proposed development because they are concerned over the effects that this diversion will have on utility costs, recreation, and the health of the Cache la Poudre River and its associated natural areas.6

While large portions of the Cache la Poudre River are now congressionally designated and protected, the community still depends on and uses the river and its resources. The river today is still used to irrigate crops and water livestock, as well as provide water for the communities and the industries along the river. The Cache la Poudre River is an important part of Northern Colorado’s economic and scenic landscape.

  1. Evadene Burris Swanson, <i>Fort Collins Yesterdays</i> (Fort Collins: Swanson, c.1993), 200-202; Rose Laflin, <i>Irrigation, Settlement, and Change on the Cache La Poudre River</i> (Fort Collins: Colorado Water Resources Research Institute, 2005), 78 and 84-87; “Cache la Poudre Wild and Scenic River Final Management Plan,” (Prepared for United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Region Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, Estes-Poudre Ranger District, Larimer County, Colorado, 1990), 4-7, accessed June 2, 2014, http://www.rivers.gov/documents/plans/cache-la-poudre-plan.pdf.
  2. “Cache la Poudre Wild and Scenic River Final Management Plan,” 4-5.
  3. Laflin, 84-87.
  4. Laflin, 85-86.
  5. Poudre Heritage Alliance, Cache la Poudre National Heritage Area Guidebook (Fort Collins, CO: Poudre Heritage Alliance, 2011), 16-17; “Cache la Poudre Wild and Scenic River Final Management Plan,” 63-67; 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.
  6. “The Endangered Cache la Poudre River,” Save the Poudre: The Waterkeeper, accessed June 1, 2014, http://www.savethepoudre.org/the-nisp-glade-project.html.

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