Over the past few years, crews have been "restoring" the South Platte River in southwest Metro Denver. The stretch north of Chatfield Reservoir had become braided, producing unstable cliffs and lacking a persistent deep channel. Apparently, the latter was considered a threat to native fish species (and thus an inconvenience to fishermen), spawning the restoration efforts.
Two years into the project, spring floods destroyed much of their handiwork earlier this year but the efforts continue. Now that the river is low, its ugly channelization is evident, giving it an artificial appearance bordered by gently sloping terrain. Its human-produced neatness may be appealing to many but it is unsettling to the eyes of a naturalist.
Rising along the east face of the Continental Divide and then cutting through the foothills via rock-walled canyons, the South Platte has always had an irregular flow, high during the annual snowmelt or after heavy monsoon thunderstorms and low for much of the year; after all, once it leaves the mountains, it flows through a semiarid landscape. Dams are spaced along the river, created for flood control, water supply and recreation; these often augment the seasonal variation of the South Platte's flow and have produced some of the effects that the current restoration is designed to correct. Judging the success of human river management during our brief life spans, we marvel at the capabilities of our species. But, over time, nature will sculpt the landscape and our transient restoration projects are futile; it is best that we just get out of her way.