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Protecting the Left Hand watershed


The Left Hand Watershed starts in the mountains west of Boulder and runs through Jamestown, Niwot and Longmont before joining the St. Vrain Creek.

After floods ravaged Boulder County in 2013, the Left Hand Watershed Center (formerly the Lefthand Watershed Oversight Group) spearheaded efforts to rebuild its namesake waterway with a series of long-term restoration projects designed and implemented using a science-based approach. Now the 76-square mile system is on its way to a healthier and more resilient future, and the center is hoping to foster a “stewardship ethic” among neighboring communities and the public at large.

“We’re at a pretty exciting time because we’ve recently changed our name and expanded our services to different watersheds,” LHWC executive director Jessie Olson said. “We’re done with major, major construction projects or will be in the next year, and now we’re at the point where we have a really awesome opportunity to keep the community engaged in watershed protection and restoration.”

The Left Hand Creek watershed begins in the mountains west of the town of Ward, and runs for 34 miles through public and private land in Jamestown, Niwot, and Longmont before meeting with the St. Vrain Creek. It is home to numerous fish and other aquatic species, as well as birds and diverse plant life. The creek and its tributaries also provide drinking and irrigation water to 20,000 residential and agricultural customers in the Left Hand Water District.

The Left Hand watershed also occupies a unique place in state and American history. Back in the 1880s, a Colorado supreme court decision in a dispute between local farmer Reuben Coffin and the Left Hand Ditch Company became the basis for water rights law throughout the western United States in the late 19th century. The “first in time, first in right,” or Colorado Doctrine, as it became known, declared that anyone had a right to a “beneficial use” of the state’s waterways, even if they didn’t own the land adjacent to one.

LHWC was founded in 2005 to help property owners and other stakeholders protect the area from contamination caused by abandoned gold and silver mines from the 19th century, but those efforts shifted when the group was pressed into service after the floods of 2013. Since 2015, the LHWC has managed more than a dozen recovery projects throughout the corridor, most of them recommended in the 2014 Left Hand Creek Watershed Master Plan.

“They’re multi-benefit projects, so we’re helping to reduce flood risk to homeowners,” Olson said, adding that the group has secured around $10 million in state and federal grants to fund the work. “We’re also improving the habitat for fish and wildlife, and we’re also improving water quality and water delivery efficiency for farmers and ranchers.”

As construction work winds down, Olson said the group is now taking a “more programmatic” approach to its mission, and is looking to expand its outreach and education activities.

“We’re launching a community science program where we can involve all members of the community in better understanding what we have in our watersheds, and why they’re worth protecting and restoring. And we’re also working quite heavily in our stewardship programs to get people out on the grounds, and actually participating in the weed control activities and additional planting and understanding that what we do affects the quality of the watershed.”

Last month, the LHWC launched its “Catch the Hatch” program, which enlisted volunteers to visit several spots along the creek to capture Pale Morning Dun mayflies, a species sensitive to changing conditions in the watershed. In September, the group is hosting the inaugural Front Range Water Days, an event designed to “engage and inspire” the community, featuring live music, local vendors, and family-friendly activities.

Protecting the Left Hand watershed

Olson emphasized the evidence-based approach of their work, and said the LHWC is also continuously collecting and analyzing data from the watershed, which will then be used to guide future restoration work. To that end, they have started working more collaboratively with neighboring watershed coalitions and local schools.

“We’re a staff of scientists, and we’re very interested in collecting data the same way in all of these different watersheds so that we can have a holistic understanding of how the water systems are functioning,” Olson said. “We’ve been working with some local school groups in Longmont and Lyons, so that students are able to collect meaningful data that is integrated right back into management of the river.”

LHWC is a 501(c)3 organization and relies on donations to fund its education and outreach activities. It will be a co-recipient of donations to the tip jars at the Rock & Rails concert on July 18. To learn more about the organization or to see volunteer opportunities, visit http://www.watershed.center.


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