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The Confluence of The South Platte River and Cherry Creek --Once Home to the Arapaho, Now Denver's Rivers and Trails Park District

Editor, Stephen Kelly

The South Platte river bank is stabilized with buried riprap and bordered by Western wheatgrass, alkali Sacaton, switchgrass, green needlegrass, blue grama, sandburg bluegrass and plains coreopsis. The Parks & Rec crew does some pruning on smaller trees, but the forestry service handles such large trees as the cottonwoods (left). The trees lining the walkway are swamp white oak and Bosnian pine.

Waters sustain life. The Arapaho, part of the Algonquin family that had made the Great Lakes area home, were pushed west by other tribes, who in turn retreated from the white man's advancement.

When the Arapaho crossed the Missouri, some went north (Wyoming) and some went south (Colorado). The southern Arapaho settled on the high plains just east of the front range of the Shining Mountains, camping for many moons near the confluence of a shallow river and a creek whose banks were thick with cherry bushes.

Confluence Park is at the point of Denver's historic birthplace--where the South Platte River and Cherry Creek meet.

The French fur traders called the river "Platte" (flat, shallow). The white man called the mountains the Rockies. This small tribe of Plains Indians with light skins and prominent noses called themselves the "bison path people" or "our people." Others would call them the "Tattooed People," an obvious moniker to describe their practice of scratching their chests with the yucca leaf needle and rubbing ash into the wounds. The Arapaho called the white prospectors sifting for gold along the river "spider people."

Mexican miners came in 1857, but white prospectors entrenched themselves the following year at the South Platte, establishing the hub of a new settlement for trade and commerce from which sprang Denver.

In the 1950s, where Cherry Creek and the South Platte met was adjacent to 15th Street and an electrical substation. The city worked with the power company for over a decade to relocate the substation. With Denver's urban growth over the years, people seemed to lose the seminal connection with the waters. What was the source of life for the Arapaho had become a dumpsite and polluted with sewage. When the South Platte flooded in the 1960s, the city was forced to re-examined its relationship with the founding waters and some realized this tremendous resource could not be taken for granted nor continue to be neglected. The city began restoration of the river and worked with concerned citizens, advisory groups and the nonprofit Greenway Foundation to help restore the river's natural beauty. It is now an inviting destination bordered by parks and trails. People enjoy walking and biking along the river, kayaking, strolling through the Xeric garden displays and natural areas or visiting Landry's Aquarium. And the youths who can pull themselves away from the internet, find active fun at the large, free skate parks.

The current staff of 27 full-time employees for Denver Park & Rec's Rivers and Trails district maintains 41 parks and parkways totaling approximately 335 irrigated acres. Lesley Roper (front row, 2nd from right), is the field superintendent for Rivers & Trails. Downtown Denver is in the background.

The fleet vehicles include Ford F350s, F450s, Ford Rangers, a couple Crew Cabs and Chevy 1500s. Several of the trucks are used for blow duty, but there are also two Meyer snow plows. Ms. Roper said the heavy winter snows this year maximized their snow clearing resources.

Rivers and Trails Park Maintenance District

Denver Park & Rec's Rivers and Trails, established in 1999, is the newest of six maintenance districts. The crew is responsible for the care and maintenance of 41 parks and parkways totaling approximately 335 irrigated acres. The district also contains approximately 200 acres of natural areas and provides support to other maintenance districts with the care and upkeep of 65 miles of citywide bike trails. The district amenities include seven rec centers, 21 playgrounds, five formal baseball fields, six informal baseball fields, two formal soccer fields, three informal soccer fields, eight basketball courts, five tennis courts, one frisbee golf course, one skate park and a dog off-leash area in Fuller Park.

Lesley Roper is the field superintendent of Rivers & Trails district. While a student at the University of Colorado, she found herself drawn to horticulture and landscape maintenance and landed a job with Denver Park & Rec as a utility worker in the greenhouses. She took horticulture classes at the community college and worked her way up to greenhouse plant propagator.

The 13 greenhouses supply the annuals and perennials for the ornamental displays in the various gardens.

Seasonal laborer Carolyn Di Santo gets some equipment operator training on the 15 ft. Toro mower during an in-house training program. Among the mowers the crew uses are Toro Groundmasters and a John Deere 390 flail mower.

After 12 years of greenhouse work, Ms. Roper was promoted to a horticultural field position to care for the ornamental displays in the central district. From there, she was promoted to operational supervisor in the foresty section in the northeast district, growing trees in a nursery and planting them. She was then promoted to field superintendent of the Montclair district to oversee all of its park maintenance. And when the park districts along the Platte River corridor were amalgamated into one--Rivers & Trails--she became the field superintendent, helping hire and staff the new district and develop its maintenance yard. She directs 27 full-time employees, which includes three operation supervisors, a crew supervisor, an administrative assistant, two horticulturists, two equipment operators, three maintenance technicians, six senior utility workers, six senior utility workers and six utility workers.

Eighteen temporary personnel (six on-call utility workers and 12 seasonal laborers) are recruited to work March through May.

I asked Lesley Roper her biggest challenge. Unfortunately, graffiti, vandalism, malicious damage and discarded trash is one of the challenges in certain areas that take away from constructive pursuits. She notes last year about $10,000 was spent on supplies alone to deal with graffiti.

The staff of Rivers and Trails provides in-house training in various fields--horticulture, irrigation and equipment operation. Here, the staff is receiving instruction on basic pruning.

Turf Management

Kentucky bluegrass is the mainstay turf for the parks, with some overseeding of annual rye, particularly for the ball fields, where quicker germination is desired. Areas with noticeable bare spots in a contiguous area (less than 90 percent cover) are overseeded with the appropriate seed mix for consistency and sustainability. Football fields are overseeded with a blend of three improved turf-type bluegrass cultivars at a rate of 1.5 lbs per 1,000 square feet. Soccer fields are overseeded with bluegrass at the same rates.

The standard for turf is no more than 15 percent of the area containing broadleaf weeds. Nonathletic turf (excluding natural areas) is mowed to a height of three inches. Turf is mowed to a three inches height. Ride-on mowers with mulching decks or mulch kits are used to return nutrients to the soil and to minimize unnecessary collecting and dumping. Areas not accessible to riding mowers are trimmed after each mowing. Trimming is reduced by using Roundup and/or pre-emergent herbicides. A 6-12 radius is kept clear around posts and utility boxes from turf. The base of shrubs and trees require a minimum radius clearance of two feet from the turf.

A litter lift (turf sweeper) is used to remove excess litter, grass clippings and other debris from certain areas after special events.

All herbicide applications are applied in accordance with FIFRA, Colorado Department of Agriculture, and CCD Mayor's Executive order #121. IPM/BMPs are used to encourage a strong turf management program and minimize the use of herbicides. General use classified pesticides are used for turf and ornamental applications.

Turf aeration is done using hollow tine, slicing, deep tine, or shatter tine to promote increased porosity in the soil to increase oxygen, water and nutrient uptake. A minimum of two passes (aggressive aeration) in perpendicular directions is employed. When core aerating, a steel mat is dragged during to help break up cores, level low spots, and return loose soil into the aeration holes. Organic topdressing is used on nonathletic fields when soil tests or leveling needs determine the application.

Park horticulturists Francis Quintana, Misha Acklin and seasonal laborer Carolyn DiSanto renovate an old shrub bed by replacing old, overgrown junipers with a variety of flowering perennials.

From left: Utility workers Brian Vigil ("on-call" status) and Ray Perez aerate the turf with walk-behind Lawnaires. The turf areas receive hollow tine aeration twice a year to increase soil porosity and oxygen, water and nutrient uptake.


In the spring and fall fertilizer is applied, generally one pound per 1,000 sq. ft. per application. Up to three pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 sq. ft. is used with high-grade slow release nitrogen products. Applications are based on turf needs for health and to minimize competition from turf weeds. Soil testing is done to determine soil and plant requirements for optimal growth.

Thomas Montoya operates a John Deere 5320 tractor with core aerator attachment at Denver Park & Rec's newest park in the Rivers and Trails district. The park, not yet named, is located at 51st and Steele. Kentucky bluegrass is the mainstay turf for the parks, with some overseeding of annual rye, particularly for the ball fields, where quicker germination is desired.


Denver has had some drought conditions in recent years. Although Ms. Rosper said the Kentucky bluegrass at times has look "absolutely dead," it revived quite well with a little water, while the fescues did not survive, nor other grasses touted as draught tolerant. "I think we learned a lot about water management, that we can sustain the turf on less water than we historically used," she adds.

The day I spoke with Ms. Roper, April 25, 2007, Denver had received three inches of rain the day before, some flooding and two inches of snow in the mountains.

Some of the parks are on a central control systems (Toro). She is looking to expanded the system. Most of the stand-alone controllers are ITCs, with Hunter rotary heads. Denver Parks adheres to all guidelines set forth by Denver Water for the use of water resources and uses industry BMPs for irrigation. The current standard is to use 70 percent of the total Denver Park's consumption from 2001, which equates to approximately 24 inches per acre/year. Irrigation occurs within three days or less per irrigation zone, between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Sprinklers and controllers are adjusted to avoid runoff or ponding. No irrigation occurs 24 hours before mowing.

Senior utility worker Tom Martinez is operating the 15 ft. Toro mower at Curtis Park, the oldest park in the city.

All parks and parkways have a laminated 8-1/2” x 11” irrigation system chart detailing all components. The programed controllers are routinely checked to meet ET needs by plant type. The automatic irrigation systems is programmed for 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., not more than three nights per week per zone.

DPR uses the Irrigation Association's Certified Landscape Irrigation auditor training to evaluate inefficient irrigation or areas using more than 35 inches per acre/year.

The irrigation system is shut down at the connection points and drained from the lowest points in the system after the first hard frost. All the mainlines and laterals are then cleared of water by using compressed air. Watering plant material in the winter is deemed necessary when there has been less than .5-inch moisture within a four-week period when irrigation systems are inactive.

Ray Perez is operating the 51-inch Dixie Chopper as he trims Curtis Park. Trimming is reduced by using Roundup and/or pre-emergent herbicides. All the ride-on mowers have mulching decks or mulch kits to return nutrients to the soil and minimize unnecessary collecting and dumping.

The staff gets a demonstration of the Toro Sentinel central control system. Irrigation systems can be operated through a remote controller as well as adjusted from a computer at district headquarters. Most of the stand-alone controllers are Toros, with Hunter rotary heads. Denver Parks adheres to guidelines set forth by Denver Water for the use of water resources. The current standard is to use 70 percent of total Denver Park's consumption from 2001. This equates to approximately 24 inches per acre/year.

Athletic Fields

Ballfields are routinely raked using a small pickup with a steel mat drag, or a Sand Pro Infield Leveler to insure a level-consistent surface. Care is taken to avoid lip buildup along infield/outfield transition line. The recommended maximum number of usage hours per year for baseball/softball fields is 700 hours and 500 hours for soccer/football and multi-purpose athletic fields.

Skyline is a recently renovated downtown park adjacent to Denver's 16th St. Mall, home to the summer concert series and holiday festivities. While not part of the Rivers and Trails (R&T) district, the R&T crew helps tend the roses in this popular park. Denver's high, semi-arid climate requires hardy roses. The rose variety at Skyline is Knockout, a compact shrub rose easy to maintain that blooms throughout the season. "It's resistant to black spot, needs virtually no deadheading to encourage blooming, is drought and cold tolerant, and will grow most everywhere," says Lesley Roper.

Horticulture Maintenance

Trees and shrub beds are mulched to abate weed growth and minimize lawnmower strikes of tree roots and trunks. Trees with less than 4-inch caliper have a minimum mulch radius of two feet from the trunk. Larger trees have a mulch radius of 2-4 ft. radius from the trunk. Mulch is not placed against the trunk of trees and applied four inches deep.

The annual flowerbeds are prepped by rototilling to a depth of 8-12 inches in the spring. The beds have a defined edge, accomplished by keeping turf mowed and a consistent soil edge border with a 4-6 inch trough. Bed planting areas are also raised to improve drainage and presentation. Flowers are trimmed periodically to encourage blooming. Foliar, granular, or liquid fertilizers are applied, depending on the species, and selected to minimize harmful affects to the plants. Beds are kept weed free, with pre-emergent herbicides applied prior to target weed emergence and post-emergent herbicides applied when weeds appear. Perennial plants divided and thinned to maintain their vigor. Supplemental organic material is applied to the beds in the fall after removal of the flowers, the ideal time, or early spring, where needed, before planting. Annual flowers are removed after the first hard frost, then the soil spaded and turned over.

Clean, chipped mulch is applied to the shrub beds to a depth of four inches. Ornamental grasses are cut back in March to promote new growth.

Denver Park & Rec attempts to maintain an acre to employee/staff ratio of 15:1, which falls within the industry standard range of 12:1 (BMP) to 15:1 (average). Current full-time staffing ratio is roughly 23:1. DPR maintains all regional and community parks at a level of $6,000 per acre and $4,000 per acre for neighborhood and pocket parks.

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October 15, 2019, 10:13 pm PDT

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