Troubled Water, By Will Rice

Will Rice for Sage Fly Fish

Has a man made disaster ever struck your home waters? If not, here is how it looks, here is how it smells… and here is how it feels.

Our friend Will Rice has been writing about the situation down on the South Platte and Sand Creek that continues to evolve. This river is near and dear to a lot of anglers in Denver. Here’s the first entry in a three part series.


On November 27 I stood on the 58th Street Bridge just outside of Downtown Denver peering into the South Platte River. Carp fishing with fly gear is not typically a November game. The fishing gets good at different times of the year but usually peaks in July or August when the water warms and the fish hunt actively for crawfish and other aquatic prey.

I was on a scouting mission for a potential trip later in the week. Chris Santella just authored Fifty More Places to Fly Fish Before you Die and was going to be in town for a book reading. He had written about carp fishing on South Platte, a story book-ended between other species and locations like mako shark and San Diego, golden dorado in Bolivia, and giant mahseer in the Himalayan foothills of India. The urban section of South Platte had somehow fallen in with exotic company. The plan that week was to get Chris’ boots wet and show him my local fishery. The weather that Sunday was crisp and cool, but it was sunny. I could see a few fish lurking in the current from where I stood on the bridge.

Will Rice - Sage Fly Fish - On Bridge

What I didn’t know at that time was that there was a natural disaster unfolding less than a mile from where I stood. At that precise moment, as I idly stared at moving water and well camouflaged fish, a petroleum based liquid was moving through the ground and finding day light on the banks of Sand Creek – and then quickly moving one hundred yards to the confluence of the South Platte River.

Will Rice for Sage Fly Fish - Troubled Waters - Part 1

This wasn’t just a minor spill or leak: in the first week after it was detected, an estimated 2500+ gallons of petroleum liquid was caught seeping into the water. Ground zero of the disaster happened to be one of my favorite runs in the river – and one that was closest to my home.

Will Rice for Sage Fly Fish

Will Rice for Sage - Conservation - Troubled Waters

Here is what happened (*excerpts and quotes below from Trevor Tanner’s blog, flycarpin.com and my regular blog on Drakemag.com):

On Sunday November 27, 2011, Trevor Tanner went to fish the DSP (Denver’s South Platte)…

What he found there was distressing – a heavy smell of petroleum in the air and a petroleum sheen on the water.

Will Rice - Troubled Waters - Sheen

He was able to contact authorities (*Precisely 10:03 AM: I made my first call to information in search of the CDPHE hotline; Precisely 10:16 AM: I placed the call to the duty officer with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment hotline. He asked if he could call me back in 20 minutes. I got offended and rudely said, no. He sincerely apologized and took the information. I apologized for being rude about it. I then moved to a different section of the South Platte to continue fishing.)

The authorities responded (Precisely 11:03 AM: I received a call indicating that somebody was on their way.)

Five hours later, the authorities officially didn’t do a thing. (“Precisely 3:08 PM: I used “received calls” to call back and ask if he has walked Sand Creek and seen anything. He indicated that he did walk up the creek and did not see any sheen. I asked if I called the correct people. He assured me that I did. I foolishly assumed that the discharge had concluded and dissipated. It clearly had not. Either he did not know what to look for or the discharge had only temporarily stopped.”)

A buddy of Tanner’s from Idaho (this is where things start to get amazing) read the blog and was also alarmed—so much so that he contacted Bruce Finley at The Denver Post.

Finley then contacted the EPA.

The EPA and Suncor then commenced mitigation efforts sometime on the night of Monday, Nov. 28.

The rest is ongoing history.

Up next, Part II – Benzene 101 and What Lies Beneath…

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