City parks work double duty

Aug 23, 2016

Kids play in the ponds at Rio Grande, which double as a natural treatment for stormwater before it reaches the Roaring Fork River.
Credit Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Public Radio News

Summer in downtown Aspen is bright with colorful flowers and green parks, and many of those spaces are also working hard to clean up runoff from storms before it hits the river.

Rio Grande Park is a peaceful playground on a Monday morning. There are pairs of people wandering through the John Denver sanctuary, kids playing on a small patch of sand next to one of the many pools, and small groups eating at tables or chatting on the grass. It’s sunny and calm — and really beautiful.

Summer in downtown Aspen is bright with colorful flowers and green parks, and many of those beautiful spaces, like Rio Grande Park, are also working hard to clean up runoff from storms before it hits the river.

Molly Dorais from Basalt spent the morning in the park with her three kids, building walls in the sand and splashing gently in the water.

“This one of our favorite places to play in Aspen. It’s beautiful - the flowers and the water,” Dorais said. “It just feels like a little retreat.”

This retreat has been a nearly 20-year project for Annie Denver and Jeff Woods, the head of the city’s parks department. Behind the lush gardens of cheerful flowers, those ponds are actually hard at work in a very important task: cleaning up the city’s dirty water before it pollutes the Roaring Fork river. The final stages were completed early this summer.

Annie Denver and Jeff Woods have worked together on the John Denver Sanctuary for nearly 20 years.
Credit Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Public Radio News

“What we wanted to leave was a tribute to John, not only as a musician but as a leader of the environment,” Woods said. “[We wanted] to create this environmental model of re-wilding the community, adding nature back into the City of Aspen.”

When it rains in Aspen, all the oil, dirt, food waste, litter and other debris on the city streets washes down gutters and heads for the Roaring Fork River. That water is nearly black with pollutants, which is where the systems at Rio Grande step up and put the brakes on that runoff.

After water passes through underground vaults, it pops up in the park on its way to the river. There are several types of natural filtration systems at work. The sand that makes a nice beach also acts as a purifying sandbar like you might find in a river, and the winding streams through trees and wildflowers are actually a constructed wetland.

Credit Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Public Radio News

  “Everything we are doing is trying to mimic mother nature and so that’s because that’s the best way to remove pollutants is to recreate what would be there if we weren’t there,” said city engineer April Long, who heads up the city’s stormwater treatment.  

And it’s working. Once the water hits the river, it’s 90 to 98 percent free from pollutants, often even cleaner than the river itself, according to Long.

But Rio Grande Park only handles water from the downtown core — roughly anything east of Monarch Street and south of the river. The stormwater from everywhere else in town still needs help.

“Rio Grande can’t possibly do the work that it needs to do,” Long said.  “It’s doing a great job, but we would like to see more water quality improvements throughout the town.”

Those improvements are in the works, including a project at Prockter Open Space, next to Herron Park. The city has already built a vault at the bottom of Neale Avenue by Queen Street, and work will begin in mid-September on a constructed wetland.

This area will treat all the runoff from the base of Smuggler, which includes a superfund site with high levels of lead and cadmium in the soil. Long said this designation is not a particular concern for the water from this area.

“The water that has filtered through them (the soils) does not carry any concern, certainly not the same level of concern as what is coming off just regular city streets,” Long said.  

Other areas in town are receiving smaller treatments, and some of those beautiful gardens that you walk past daily are actually working pretty hard to keep the Roaring Fork sparkling clean.

There’s a garden next to the courthouse, near the stoplight at Galena, that is full of small trees and wildflowers with butterflies and bees humming. There’s a line from the city’s storm drains into the gardens, which dip a foot or two lower than the sidewalk.

“We want that water to fill up and sit here for a little while and allow the water to infiltrate around these plants, through this soil, allow those pollutants to filter out,” Long explained. “The plants here change the chemistry of those pollutants, and begin to use that for their minerals, they use that for their food.”

These smaller-scale rain gardens are in various spots around the city, like next to the gondola plaza and near the S-curves on Hallam Street. Private developers are required to control all stormwater from their properties, so the art museum also installed one.

All the projects fit with Aspen’s expectations for a beautiful natural aesthetic, but Annie Denver explained that there’s a bigger goal here.

“You know, it’s all about making this planet a better place,” Denver said. “And hopefully it can sustain itself for a long, long time.”