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Fish populations in the South Platte River are improving

The main goal of the project is to increase dissolved oxygen levels and improve fish habitats.

COLORADO, USA — A wastewater treatment provider that has been working to improve conditions in the South Platte River said fish populations there are booming.

Metro Water Recovery just won a National Environmental Achievement Award from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies for the work they've done improving habitats for native species. 

"This goo is exciting to me, believe it or not," said Jordan Parman, water quality scientist for Metro Water Recovery. 

The goo in the palm of Parman's hand is like a neighborhood of aquatic bugs.

Credit: 9NEWS - Alex Castillo
Parman searches for macroinvertebrates or aquatic bugs in a sample from the South Platte River. “Different macroinvertebrates have different sensitivities to water pollution," he said. “So that’s a sign of good water quality when you see macroinvertebrates.”

"This is a mayfly larvae which, you like to see those," he said. "If water quality is terrible you wouldn't see these in the river."

Parman said he can get a sense of the health of the river, just by looking at this sample. 

"We make up the vast majority of the river downstream, so we kind of think of it as our responsibility to be those kind of stewards of the river," he said. 

RELATED: South Platte River to get $350M restoration

Downstream from the Robert W. Hite facility, the South Platte River is mostly made up of treated water from the plant. 

"We really want to make sure any impact we have on the river is minimized and, if possible, to improve it rather than just everybody thinking we're just discharging," said Jim Dorsch, senior water quality manager for Metro Water Recovery. "We want to learn from what we do."

He said since 1997, they've been working to improve aquatic life and habitat on the South Platte River through a six-phase project. 

Each phase focuses on an area of habitat rehabilitation along the South Platte River. They're slated to start Phase 5 in the fall. The final phase, Phase 6, will include continued monitoring of their improvements. Parman has been working on this project for the last 12 years. 

"The overall goal is to see an improvement in the number of fish we see, the diversity of species we see," said Dorsch. "We needed to add some riffles which is what you can see upstream of us here."

He said they constructed things like riffles, boulder clusters, and root wads to create homes for native species of fish. 

"If you can give them the right habitat they just move right in," said Dorsch. 

And that's exactly what Parman said they've seen happen. Fish native to Colorado like the Johnny Darter and Iowa Darter are coming back. 

"Within a year, even two years we noticed drastic, drastic improvements, much higher numbers of fish," said Parman.

Before, he said they'd see less than one hundred fish out when they were monitoring the river. Now it's more like 2,000.

"It's exciting because we've seen improvements over the years," said Parman. 

Improvements he said help fish and the ecosystem.

"The fact that there's a healthy, sustaining population of native fish species is really encouraging, particularly in an urban area like this," said Parman. 

It's not just improved fish habitat that's helped the health of the South Platte River and it's aquatic life. Metro Water Recovery said in 2015 they completed a wastewater treatment plant upgrade that drastically lowered the ammonia concentration in the water, which has also helped a lot.

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