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Standley Lake

Standley LakeStandley Lake is located on the western edge of Westminster and is the centerpiece of 2,327-acre Standley Lake Regional Park. Together the lake and park occupy a massive area of over 5square miles, bordered by West 100th Avenue on the north, 86th Parkway on the south, Independence and Kipling streets on the east, and by Alkire Street (County Road 19) on the west. 

With 1,063-acres of surface area, Standley Lake is Westminster’s largest body of water. It is also the Denver metropolitan area’s third largest reservoir, after Barr Lake (1,937 acres) and Chatfield Reservoir (1,479 acres). In addition to hiking, bicycling, camping, wildlife viewing and other park-based recreational activities, the lake offers visitors with numerous opportunities for fishing, sailing, kayaking, power boating and water skiing.

The park’s main entrance is located north of the lake at West 100th Avenue and Simms Street. At this location, visitors find a staffed entry booth for information and payment of vehicle fees. Beyond the booth are a large parking lot, boat ramp, visitor’s center (currently closed) and other amenities. No entry fees are charged for pedestrian and bicycle access. Along the south side of West 100th Avenue at Owens Street is a small parking area that provides free walk-in and bicycle access to the park. Another small parking lot that requires no entry fee is located south of the lake at West 86th Parkway and Simms Street.

Standley Lake Regional Park is owned and operated by the City of Westminster. While the public has access to the parkland and recreational use of the lake, the water rights are jointly owned by the cities of Westminster, Thornton, Northglenn and the Farmers Reservoir and Irrigation Company (FRICO). Standley Lake is used not only for recreation, but also as a source of drinking and domestic water, and for the irrigation of agricultural fields.

When full, Standley Lake averages 36-feet in depth, with a maximum depth of 96-feet at the face of the dam. It holds about 42,000 acre-feet of water (one acre foot can support the average suburban family of four for one year). This is the equivalent of more than 13 billion gallons. Because the lake is used as a source of drinking water, its quality and health are monitored by the City of Westminster on an ongoing basis. Consequently, activities such as swimming, overnight boating and jet skiing are not allowed, and the number of motorboats is tightly regulated. The Colorado Division of Wildlife stocks the lake each summer, providing excellent fishing for walleye, smallmouth bass, bluegill, rainbow trout and other species. Water enters the lake from the west, the majority of it is diverted from Clear Creek and delivered by way of the Church Ditch. The rest is from Big Dry Creek and area stormwater runoff.

Most of the lake surface, lakeshore and park area is open to the public. However, access is restricted in two areas. The first of these is the lake’s northwest corner, which is closed to the public due to the presence there of nesting bald eagles. The eagles can be viewed from a blind located about 300 yards west of the visitor’s center. The second closed area includes the spillway and mile-long dam wall that stretch along the lake’s northeast shore. These are the private property of FRICO, and for safety and security reasons are off-limits to the public. In 2004, a new outlet works, spillway and valve house were constructed at the northeast corner of the lake, and the original outlet works to the southeast near the middle of the dam were abandoned. Below the new spillway, a massive drainageway curves below the dam wall and then drops into Big Dry Creek.

When Colorado was first settled in the early 1860s, the area now occupied by Standley Lake was occupied by undeveloped prairie bisected by an unnamed stream. Around 1870, John S. Kinnear filed a homestead claim on part of the land, secured rights to water from Coal Creek and began to construct a ditch and reservoir for irrigation purposes. The adjacent area to the east was owned by the Colorado Central and then Union Pacific Railroad which constructed a line from Golden to Boulder just east of the developing reservoir. Situated in the center of where Standley Lake is found today, Kinnear Reservoir was soon the largest body of water in the countryside northwest of Denver.

By the 1890s, the land and reservoir were in the hands of Thomas B. Croke, a Denver resident and owner of Thomas B. Croke and Company, a thriving carpeting, draperies and upholstery business. Croke began investing in area real estate, including agricultural lands in the countryside north of Denver. This line of his business, which included ownership of Kinnear Reservoir and the Kinnear Ditch (renamed the Croke Canal) was incorporated under the name Croke Land and Live-Stock Company. In 1902, Thomas Croke teamed with Ottawa Joseph (“O. J.”) Standley and Milton Smith to incorporate the Farmers Reservoir and Irrigation Company (FRICO), an enterprise whose goal was to develop a system of canals and reservoirs that would provide water to the rapidly developing farm country north and northwest of the city.

Prior to the formation of FRICO, New Jersey native Milton Smith lived in Denver where he worked as an attorney. Nebraska native O. J. Standley also resided in Denver and served as vice president of Chicago Title and Trust. Given their backgrounds and place of residence (they continued living in Denver for years after launching FRICO) it is clear that Croke, Standley and Smith pursued the development of irrigation projects not as farmers but as entrepreneurs and investors. For some time, Standley had been seeking a site to build a water storage reservoir north of city, initially settling upon Barr Lake near Brighton as an option. However, Croke and Standley decided instead to greatly enlarge and improve Kinnear Reservoir. To accomplish this project and invest in farmlands north of the city, the men created the Denver Reservoir and Irrigation Company and moved forward with planning (the Denver Company operated in tandem with FRICO).  From that time on, O. J. Standley served as the company’s president, and the effort’s most dedicated advocate and manager.

Construction began in 1908 and continued into early 1910 with a massive earth moving effort. Chicago hydraulic and irrigation engineer William H. Rosecrans prepared the design for the entire project. Awarded the general contract, the Kenefick Construction Company of Kansas City brought its men and equipment to the site on the Colorado and Southern Railroad, which also hauled and dumped the massive amount of dirt required to raise the dam wall. Excavation and earth moving were accomplished using large steam shovels and dragline dredges. A construction camp of wood frame buildings rose at the foot of the dam.

By early 1910, the Denver Reservoir and Irrigation Company had expanded to hold more than 200,000 acres of agricultural land across several irrigation districts north of Denver, with options placed on thousands more. It also held a developing system of irrigation canals and reservoirs, and acquired the rights to more than 400,000 acre-feet of water on the plains and in the mountains above. Between 1909 and 1912, Thomas Croke served in the Colorado state senate. Although a member of the agriculture and irrigation committee, he was unable to forestall financial problems that soon beset the Standley Lake project. With rapid expansion, by 1910 the Denver Reservoir and Irrigation Company had taken on so many ambitious efforts in such a short period of time that it found itself overextended and short on funds to finish several of its projects.

In May 1910, work at Standley Lake ground to a halt and the previously active site went silent. The massive earthwork sat partially built, awaiting completion sometime in the future. Ten months later, in March 1911, Denver’s newspapers reported that the effort would be restarted shortly with funding provided by Banque Franco-Americaine, with offices in Paris and New York. The bank agreed to provide $2,000,000 for the completion of various irrigation projects already launched by the company, including Standley Lake. However, the agreement also called for the Denver Reservoir and Irrigation Company to go into receivership and be placed under bank control. Croke, Standley and Smith had no choice but to let Banque Franco-Americaine take the financial reins of the project, and Arthur Day of New York City was appointed receiver. However, the three Denver founders continued to serve as directors and officers of the company.

When work resumed in the spring of 1911, the general contract for Standley Lake remained in the hands of the Kenefick Construction Company, whose owner William Kenefick helped secure the funding from the French bank. The contract called for the earthwork to be completed by Oct. 1 and the concretework by the first of December. Under tremendous pressure, Kenefick increased the scale and pace of its effort. Hundreds of laborers were brought from Denver each day to work on the site. Excavators and trains moved at a remarkable pace, setting records in the heavy construction industry. At the same time the dam was being finished, all of the canals, embankments and laterals had to be prepared to meet the same deadline.

The dedication ceremony for the new Standley Lake Dam took place on Sept. 7, 1911. A special Colorado and Southern train transported dignitaries, together with several hundred citizens, from Denver’s Union Station to the site. Among them were U.S. Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson, Colorado District Court Judge George Allen (in place of Governor John Shafroth, who was unable to attend), Wyoming Governor Joseph Carey, State Engineer Charles Comstock, President of the State Land Commission Edward Keating and Denver Chamber of Commerce President Charles Johnson. Also present was Arthur Day, receiver for Banque Franco-Americaine and the Denver Reservoir and Irrigation Company, along with contractor William Kenefick and engineer William Rosecrans.

After stepping off the train at the construction camp below the dam, the crowd ascended the massive earthen wall on foot. One reporter with the Denver Daily News (Sept. 8, 1911) described the view: “On top, the almost dry bottom of the lake spread out like a huge amphitheater. Clumps of trees in the bottom, from one to two miles distant, appeared like bushes, and out in the heart of the big hole a group of farm buildings rested peacefully where 100 feet of water will be reposing in a year or two.” A small but growing lake in the bottom of the reservoir looked to the reporter like a tiny frog pond from atop the dam wall. The beautiful and imposing setting elicited gasps from the visitors, many of whom had never seen the site before.

Once the tour was finished, the crowd descended to the dining room at the construction camp, where they were treated to a meal. Afterward, they gathered before a flatbed rail car, decorated with bunting, at the foot of the dam to hear speeches made by the dignitaries. Above them, a long line of American flags placed at equal distances along the top of the massive dam wall fluttered in the breeze. Milton Smith provided the assemblage with a history of the project and introduced the crowd to Joseph Standley and Senator Thomas Croke, who were sitting nearby in an automobile. The lake would be named in honor of Standley, the driving force behind the project during its several years of development (this decision had already been made by 1908 as the reservoir was in its planning stage). The crowd treated the three originators of the Standley Lake project to an enthusiastic round of cheers and applause.

Upon completion, Standley Lake’s earthen dam was reported to be the largest of its kind in the United States, and possibly the second largest in the world. Three million cubic yards of soil had been excavated and moved to create a dam wall measuring 700-feet wide at the base, 1.25 miles long and 113-feet high. The lake was filled with water from Clear Creek, Coal Creek, Ralston Creek and Leyden Creek, delivered by way of the Croke (formerly Kinnear) Canal and Church Ditch. Water also entered the lake from the upper reaches of Big Dry Creek and Woman Creek above the reservoir. Additional water was secured from the Farmers' High Line Canal. The twin outflow from Standley Lake divided the water below the dam between the Niver Canal and Big Dry Creek.

Two years after the dedication ceremony, in August 1913, a Denver District Court judge lifted the receivership on the Denver Reservoir and Irrigation Company and the project was free and clear of its financial troubles. However, within a few years the dam was to face structural problems. During construction, evidence of structural concerns was encountered in the earthen embankment that formed the dam wall. However, work continued under the assumption that repairs might eventually need to be made. In 1913, cracks began to form on the dam, and the following year a slide took place on its downstream face. This damage was repaired, but in early 1916 additional slides occurred on the upstream face, where sizable sections of stone facing and soil along the steep slope collapsed into the water.

The lake was drained so that consulting engineers could study the problem and come up with a solution. They determined that the dam was not properly compacted when built, and that it had settled as much as 13 feet. The base of the dam was believed to be waterlogged and the steep slopes were unable to stand up to the settling taking place. Necessary repairs were estimated to cost between $300,000 and $400,000. Thousands of farmers in the irrigation district below worried that there would be no water for the coming growing season. Several years passed before the repairs were finally completed in 1922, and the reservoir served the irrigation district well over the following decades.

By the early 1960s, residents of Westminster had become concerned about the quality of their water system. An attempt was made to secure water from the City of Denver, but this failed. Following more than three years of negotiations, in 1963 the City of Westminster completed its first major water agreement when FRICO’s stockholders approved a contract that would allow the city to store 12,000 acre-feet of water in Standley Lake. Westminster enlarged the dam, expanding the reservoir’s capacity to hold the additional water and bringing it to its current 42,000 acre-feet of storage capacity. This agreement provided residents with quality drinking water and positioned the city for growth in the coming decades.

Although Westminster had secured adequate storage space, rights to the water from Clear Creek soon became a point of contention between FRICO and the city as both entities competed for the limited and variable supply of water that emerged from the mountains. Conflict over this complicated issue, which evolved to include legal disputes over land development and tax revenues among Denver’s northern and northwestern suburbs, was not settled until the late 1970s. In 1970, the city began looking to manage Standley Lake as a regional park, an idea first raised and studied in the late 1950s. However, it was determined that this could not be done unless the lake was located within the city. The following year, Westminster reached out to the west and annexed 2,500 acres of land that included Standley Lake, bringing its primary water source and the reservoir’s recreational potential into the city limits.

In the meantime, another power struggle emerged by the early 1970s as the cities of Westminster and Arvada wrestled over control of the Standley Lake Water and Sanitation District, which served customers across Denver’s northern suburbs, as well as farmlands farther north toward Weld County (served by the Bull Canal). Westminster had been providing the district with water since 1967, and in 1970 assumed operational control of its water distribution services. In 1971, the City of Westminster arranged to run all of the water and sewage facilities, to the disappointment of Arvada. Although on the surface the legal dispute that arose with Arvada appeared to be over land and public utilities operation, it actually revolved around control of water from Standley Lake. In other words, whoever controlled the district’s operations would be in the best position to benefit from future land development and tax revenues brought about through control of the water supply. By annexing Standley Lake and aggressively pursuing control of the Water and Sanitation District in 1971, Westminster took major steps that proved to be a watershed in the community’s growth and improvement.

Two years later, in 1973, another dispute over Standley Lake water arose as the City of Thornton attempted to purchase FRICO’s share of the reservoir. The irrigation company was not interested in the offer, and Thornton sued for condemnation. Eager to protect its ownership rights, the City of Westminster was forced to file suit as well in order to stop Thornton’s effort. These tandem lawsuits worked their way slowly through the courts and several years later were still active. In 1979, the suits were settled as part of what became known as the “four-way agreement.”  Through the agreement, FRICO and Westminster maintained their water rights in Standley Lake, Thornton received approval for water storage rights in the reservoir and the City of Northglenn would be able to proceed with its own independent water and sewer system (up until then it was dependent upon purchasing these services from Thornton). Had Thornton been successful in its condemnation suit, many farmers who depended upon FRICO water worried that they would have been forced out of business.

In 1998, after years of attempts to turn Standley Lake into a regional park, Jefferson County Open Space and FRICO reached an agreement that transferred land and recreation rights to the county. The county then deeded the property, together with the lake’s surface recreational rights, to the City of Westminster with the understanding that the city would maintain and improve Standley Lake as it was converted to a regional park. To accomplish this goal, Jefferson County Open Space contributed $2.4 million to the project for improvements that included campground and restroom facilities, a new boat ramp, the visitor’s center and a system of roads and trails. Today, Standley Lake remains a critical source of water for the City of Westminster and many other downstream users, and serves as one of the Denver metropolitan area’s premier recreational areas.

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