Grand Junction has many reasons to love that river

By Katie Steele and Bennett Boeschenstein

When the America’s Great Outdoors initiative stopped in Colorado recently, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar heard about successful, community-based, collaborative conservation efforts that can be a model for the rest of the country. Here in Grand Junction, we have a shining example of this type of collaboration: the Colorado Riverfront Project.

Rivers bring benefits such as clean drinking water, recreational opportunities and business growth to our communities — but only if they are healthy. The Colorado (originally the Grand) and Gunnison rivers in our backyards had suffered from decades of neglect and degradation. Fortunately, our community wisely recognized the tourism benefits of a rejuvenated waterfront and began to restore these natural treasures.

Restoration efforts began in 1985 with a clean-up project on the 30-acre weed- and junk-infested Watson Island. For two years, volunteers spent countless hours cleaning the island by hand. They hauled 25 years of salvage yard scrap metal, 4,000 tires and over 400 truckloads of waste to the landfill.

It was only the beginning. What began as a local clean-up project expanded into a valleywide effort to reclaim the rivers and their floodplains as social, economic, wildlife and recreational amenities — the highlight of which is the Colorado Riverfront Trail.

Today, communities across the Grand Valley are connected by over 30 miles of trails. Over 450,000 visitors enjoy the neighboring Colorado River State Park to bike, fish, swim, camp, hike and boat. There are numerous community events around the rivers, including concerts, triathlons, bike rides, raft races and festivals.

The Colorado Riverfront trails, greenways, parks, open space and wildlife areas are consistently cited as one of the most valued amenities of the community when residents, tourists and businesses are surveyed. A nationwide study found that: “These corridors also have the potential to create jobs, enhance property values, expand local businesses, attract new or relocating businesses, increase local tax revenues, decrease local government expenditures, and promote a local community.” Readers can access the study for themselves at

Clearly, these river-restoration efforts have revitalized the local economy, greatly improved the quality of life for area residents and provided rich habitat for wildlife and riparian vegetation in an otherwise arid region.

Projects like this one are transforming communities across Colorado, and the country. But their success hinges on tireless community support and effort, successful public-private partnerships, Great Outdoors Colorado (funded by the Colorado Lottery) and where appropriate, federal investment. To that end, the current administration should keep the promise to provide full and dedicated funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund — a key tool for creating parks, trails and ball fields in communities nationwide — and protect key land and waters with special safeguards.

River restoration and preservation should be a key part of the America’s Great Outdoors initiative.

As Grand Junction has learned, sustaining the Colorado River, and the rivers and streams that flow into it, sustains our communities, local recreation and tourism-based economies, agriculture and environment … our Western way of life.

Katie Steele is the co-chair of the Riverfront Commission.

Bennett Boeschenstein is a member of the Colorado Riverfront Commission.


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