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Over the next 15 years, Arapahoe County will join with neighboring counties, government agencies and a nonprofit to invest $130 million into conservation and accessibility projects for the High Line Canal, a more than 140-year-old human-made irrigation waterway that has now become a popular recreation trail. 

With the creation of a new partnership in late January, known as the High Line Canal Collaborative, local governments and organizations hope to improve the waterway and accompanying trail that serves communities across the metro region.

The canal begins in southwest Douglas County and stretches 71 miles to Aurora, winding through Douglas, Arapahoe, Adams and Denver counties. According to its website, the canal is one of the longest continuous urban trails in the U.S.

“It’s an amazing amenity that’s used by hundreds of thousands of people a year,” said Arapahoe County Commissioner Nancy Sharpe. “There were a lot of conversations about not only how do we provide access to the canal but how do we preserve it for the future.”

Since 2014, the four counties, along with the Mile High Flood District, High Line Canal Conservancy and Denver Water, which owns the canal, have invested a combined total of over $32 million into preservation and improvement efforts. 

But a historic lack of accessibility investment, especially in the more northern parts of the canal, coupled with harsher, more common droughts have pushed stakeholders to come together to connect more people and pursue climate conservation efforts for the waterway. 

“It couldn’t be just Arapahoe County, we really needed the partnership between all of us to make this work,” Sharpe said. 

The collaborative is eyeing several ways to make it easier for communities to recreate on the canal’s trail such as new bridges, underpasses and mile markers. Environmental stewardship efforts will include removing dead trees in the forests surrounding the canal and planting thousands of more drought-tolerant trees by 2030.

Drought has been an ever-present problem for waterways like High Line. The second half of 2021 was Colorado’s warmest period on record, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. As climate change continues to make the state dryer, learning how to adapt and be “good stewards” of the environment will be crucial for the canal’s future, Sharpe said. 

“Conservation has been important to the county … and realizing we do have a drought here in Colorado and need to be conserving as much water as we can,” Sharpe said. 

Denver Water, which took over the canal in 1924, has signaled a need to wean current users off the waterway in favor of more sustainable irrigation services, such as rainwater collection. Currently, there are about 35 entities in the metro area that still rely on the canal for irrigation, including schools, parks and residences, according to Tom Roode, chief operations and maintenance officer for Denver Water. 

“Our need to conserve is one of our drivers to get all of our customers off the canal,” Roode said. 

Within the next five years, the agency is hoping the canal can be a source for purely recreational use as well as support for nearby vegetation. 

Suzanna Fry Jones, senior director of programs and partnerships for the nonprofit High Line Canal Conservancy, said these changes are crucial if the canal is to adapt to climate change. 

One of the main initiatives of the newly formed collaborative is to build new stormwater infrastructure along the canal in order to replenish the waterway and to provide flood mitigation. 

“The plain fact that there is this 800-acre greenway that slices through the region … is a huge factor for looking to the future and the effects of climate change,” Fry said. “The opportunities that surround having an open space so close to so many people in an urban area could be really beneficial for the community.”

By investing in stormwater projects in a bid to drain water into the canal, Fry said the waterway could be wet 100 more days a year than it is currently. 

“You can imagine what an incredible impact that can have on the vegetation,” she said.

The collaborative is also hoping that stormwater mitigation will build off existing investments into improving the canal’s water quality. By investing in green infrastructure, as Roode put it, the canal can rely on new soil and plants to filter out pollutants, such as sediment, salt, phosphates and oil that may be collected by rain or snow when it touches the ground and drains into the canal. 

Roode said he is excited about what this will all mean for the canal’s longevity, especially as Denver Water faces a future with no customers for the waterway. 

“We have this great resource … and the challenge for us is it’s no longer a good asset for us to deliver irrigation water, but we don’t want to just let it fail,” he said. 

Of the $130 million the collaborative has proposed, about 20% to 30% will come from private donors, according to Fry, including individual donors, regional and national foundations and some corporate groups. About 40% to 50% of the funding will come from local and regional governments. The collaborative will also look to secure federal dollars such as through the recently passed multi-billion-dollar infrastructure law. 

For Sharpe, the Arapahoe County commissioner, the group’s efforts represent a long-term investment. 

“To say ‘we’re going to be doing things today that are going to benefit hundreds of thousands of people in the future’ … that’s what my focus is, trying to have lasting impacts,” she said. “We’re all on the same page.”