Guest blog by: Harriet Crittenden LaMair, Executive Director, High Line Canal Conservancy
The High Line Canal extends 71 miles from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to the expansive prairie stretching to the distant horizon. Along the way, this connective thread weaves through different ecosystems and communities, including Denver South. Now, and in the future, the Canal offers residents and visitors the unique experience of exploring the incredible mosaic of people, places and wildlife of the region.
“The 71 miles of the High Line Canal are a treasured recreational and natural asset for our region. It is a community gathering place where we connect with nature and our friends for our health and wellbeing. As our population grows, it is more important than ever to preserve and enhance our parks and trails. The partnership between Denver Water, the Conservancy and the eleven jurisdictions that the Canal flows through offers us an opportunity to protect our beloved trail and to preserve it for the generations to come,” said Councilwoman Kendra Black, Denver District 4.
The High Line Canal was built as an irrigation ditch that follows the curves of the landscape’s contours, extending along a high line, allowing it to stretch as far as possible to reach the greatest extent of irrigable land.
A gold rush in 1859 originally brought settlers and farmers to the Denver region. In 1870, Scotsman James Duff conceived the idea for the High Line Canal as an irrigation ditch to support farms east of Denver on the plains. Construction began in 1881; it was an engineering feat for its day, as it drops only 2 feet every mile (for a total of only approximately 140 feet dropped in 71 miles). The 71-mile Canal was completed in 1883, and crosses over and under streams as it winds through the Denver metro region. In these early days, the Canal irrigated 20,000 acres of land through 165 headgates. It was in 1924 when Denver Water, the current owner, acquired the Canal from the Antero and Lost Park Reservoir Company.
Today, it serves approximately 70 Denver Water customers for landscape irrigation and passes through 11 jurisdictions – Adams County, Arapahoe County, Aurora, Centennial, Cherry Hills Village, the City and County of Denver, Douglas County, Greenwood Village, Highlands Ranch Metro District, Littleton and South Suburban Parks and Recreation District.
Beginning in 1970, Denver Water opened the Canal to the public, allowing the public to use the existing maintenance road adjacent to the Canal for recreation.
The High Line Canal was originally created to support economic development through agriculture and farms, but because of its seepage and junior water rights, the Canal never reached its full potential as a reliable water supply system. Today, the Canal has evolved to have high value as a recreational trail.
Times change. The historic High Line Canal now faces new challenges. Water scarcity, combined with the recognition that the Canal is no longer an efficient means of delivering water to customers, has precipitated the need to reassess the use and future role of the Canal. The Canal loses much of its water to seepage and is no longer an effective, nor sustainable, way to deliver water. In fact, the Canal no longer delivers water past Fairmont Cemetery and prior to the planning effort, small sections of the Canal were sold off and filled in by developers.
Despite its inefficiency as an irrigation system, the engineers and investors who built the Canal gifted our region a crown jewel: one of the longest and most historic recreational corridors in the country, comprising nearly 860 acres of land area (larger than New York’s Central Park), connecting 8,226 acres of open spaces and enjoyed by well over a half million people a year. The High Line Canal is our opportunity to create a significant and enduring greenway legacy, one that surpasses in scale and impact other urban greenways in the nation, while celebrating the region’s diverse mosaic of people, places and ecology.
With estimates of over 18,000 people moving to the metro region each year – and Denver’s population estimated to swell to over 4 million people by 2025 – more and more residents will look to enjoy the Colorado lifestyle close to home. With the Canal in the backyard of over 350,000 people, this population growth makes it even more apparent that we must protect the quality of life and connections to nature that draw people to our spectacular region. Denver, like communities across the country and around the world, must seize opportunities to creatively repurpose obsolete and abandoned infrastructure for broader benefits. The High Line Canal’s diverse attributes—its rich history, cultural significance, unique ecology and recreational potential—make it an unprecedented and multi-beneficial re-use opportunity for the metro region.
Tackling the challenges of a growing region requires different ways of thinking, increased collaboration and new types of partnerships. In 2016, the High Line Canal Conservancy engaged thousands of community members, including representatives from the local jurisdictions, to actively participate in the writing of the Community Vision Plan for the High Line Canal. The Vision Plan is a forward-looking story of what the Canal can be in the future, developed to ensure the Canal reaches its greatest potential as an environmental, recreational, social, historic and economic asset along all of its 71 miles.
Community Vision Statement for the High Line Canal
The High Line Canal’s 71 meandering miles will be preserved and enhanced as a cherished greenway that connects people to nature and binds varied communities together from the foothills to the plains.
To view the full Vision Plan, visit: highlinecanal.org/vision.
The development of the Vision Plan represents a model of regional cooperation—led by an effective partnership between the High Line Canal Conservancy and Denver Water, and supported with representatives from every jurisdiction actively and eagerly at the table. It sheds light on a bright future for the Canal, but the Vision Plan will require continued commitment and support from the public and jurisdictional partners.
“Denver Water is committed to the long-term preservation of the canal corridor as a key recreational and environmental amenity for the Denver metro area,” said Jim Lochhead, Denver Water CEO/manager. “Transforming this corridor will take the collective effort of all the entities along the canal, and we’re ready to roll up our sleeves and work together.”
Immediate next steps for the Canal include growing trail system connections; improving Canal crossings; providing tours and programming; implementing signage and wayfinding tools; creating pedestrian bridges; and growing volunteer, community and partnership involvement. Here’s how to get involved:
- Be a High Line Hero. joinhighlinecanal.org
- Participate in upcoming stewardship activities with the Conservancy and partners Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado (VOC) and Environmental Learning for Kids (ELK): highlinecanal.org/calendar
- Participate in the upcoming summer walking programs including mile 0 to 71 with Walk2Connect: highlinecanal.org/walk2connect
- Sign up for monthly updates through the High Line Canal newsletter
- Follow the High Line Canal’s social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram).
- Visit the High Line Canal Conservancy’s website to learn more: highlinecanal.org