The Big Thompson River travels roughly 75 miles eastward from its headwaters near the Continental Divide and Longs Peak (14,251 feet elevation) through the cities of Estes Park and Loveland to its confluence with the South Platte River in Colorado’s Front Range. The watershed includes the Big Thompson River, the North Fork of the Big Thompson River, the Little Thompson River, Buckhorn Creek, Glacier Creek, and all tributaries prior to joining the South Platte River southwest of the City of Greeley. It also includes several reservoirs and lakes, such as Carter Lake and Horsetooth Reservoir.
A clean water supply is vital to our existence and to all flora and fauna species. In addition to needing water for sustenance, we rely on water for other designated or beneficial uses, including agriculture, the healthy propagation of fish and wildlife, recreation, navigation and shipping, and industrial processes.
Water quality monitoring reveals trends and patterns in specific water quality variables and allows us to determine whether we are meeting federal and state water quality standards. By detecting and estimating changes in water quality over time and space, measures may be taken to improve water quality and maintain existing healthy systems that may otherwise become impaired.
Why a Watershed Forum?
The Big Thompson Watershed Forum was formed in 1997 when a group of concerned citizens, stakeholders, and officials (including Rob Buirgy, the Forum’s founding director) observed clear signs of local water quality deterioration, such as dissolved oxygen, more frequent fish kills, increasing E.coli and bacteria counts, trash and debris in the river, and TMDL listings. The Forum’s founders believed that water quality could best be protected by monitoring the entire watershed.
In 1996, the Upper Big Thompson River Watershed Study Needs Assessment Final Report was completed for the North Front Range Water Quality Planning Association (NFRWQPA). Study results showed that various water quality concerns existed, yet many had not been identified by regulatory agencies, prompting citizens and key stakeholders to establish the Big Thompson Watershed Forum.
Having targeted the lack of comprehensive water quality and stream flow data as the greatest obstacle to effective protection efforts, the Forum created a collaborative water quality monitoring program in partnership with Colorado State University, the U.S. Geological Survey, and local municipalities and stakeholders to allow a more thorough examination of water quality issues in the Big Thompson River and its tributaries. Based on a well-documented initial assessment, extensive stakeholder discussion, research, and historical TMDL listings, the Forum determined that nutrient, metal, sediment, and pathogen water quality variables were the highest priority for a monitoring and assessment program.
The study recommended the establishment of a collaborative watershed management effort to address the need for:
- Scientifically sound studies of the effects of human activities on water quality
- An effective communication network among stakeholders
- An educational program to increase public awareness of the watershed and associated water quality
When the final report was presented to the public, a group of concerned people representing municipalities, private citizens, and government agencies endorsed the formation of a watershed forum. Thus, the Big Thompson Watershed Forum was created and designed to take a holistic approach to water quality assessment and protection, embracing the spirit of cooperation and community involvement.
Water originating in the Big Thompson River Watershed is shared by more than 800,000 people and used for residential, commercial, agricultural, recreation, and wildlife habitat purposes. The Forum continues to work closely with its stakeholders, contributors, and board members to ensure the watershed’s sustainability.