Many rivers run through Grand County — their waters are vital to the life of locals and those on the Front Range. The Headwaters River Journey highlights the importance of conserving them and protecting the riparian ecosystem. Water is literally life — the Headwaters River Journey teaches this in a fun, interactive way for both kids and adults.
The museum sits near the Fraser River, off of U.S. Highway 40 in the heart of Winter Park. Before touring it, visitors can explore the trails along the river’s banks, experiencing the beauty of this natural resource first-hand. Inside the museum, exhibits teach how rivers allow daily tasks as simple as showering, provide outdoor pursuits like kayaking and support the delicate balance of insects, birds and wildlife.
When I visited, I found over 30 multidimensional exhibits, including ones that gave me the point-of-view of different species. Visitors can crawl into a beaver dam, fly like a bird and swim like a fish, thanks to the interactive technology.
I began my tour by learning about two of Grand County’s major rivers: the Colorado and the Fraser. Next, I discovered the many species that rely on, and help support, these flowing bodies of water. Insects such as the stone fly and mayfly are a sign of a river’s health. Fish like trout and salmon, and birds like ducks and geese, make their homes in the rivers. Beavers act as ecosystem engineers, creating dams to ensure healthy wetlands.
I learned about the population geography of Colorado, and how that relates to water use. Colorado is split into the West Slope and East Slope by the Continental Divide. The West Slope, with its confluence of rivers, provides about 80% of Colorado’s water. The East Slope, once a vast, dry prairie and now home to about 80% of Colorado’s population, uses the most water.
The museum shows how Western Slope water is diverted into ditches, then piped across the divide, using projects like the massive Moffat water tunnel, which runs parallel to the Moffat train tunnel. Now when I walk alongside this tunnel, I’ll know how essential it is to the East Slope’s water needs.
Visitors can read about the Moffat water tunnel’s construction, undertaken in the 1930s. It cost the lives of 26 men, but allowed Denver to become the booming metropolis it is today. The history of water rights in Colorado often culminated in fights between water barons who wanted to divert the water to urban areas, and farmers who believed they had a right to the water on their land. A historical quote displayed in the museum reads, “Whiskey’s for drinkin’ — water’s for fightin’,” a common attitude held during the West’s development.
Colorado’s residents have come a long way from this belligerent attitude, as a quote by Kirk Klancke, president of the Colorado River Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited, relays: “We can’t just be fighting East Slope-West Slope. There should be no division. We’re one Colorado, and we all need water.”
The only way to ensure there is enough water for all Coloradans is to practice conservation. Forty million Americans rely on the Colorado River and its tributaries for water, and this number will only grow. By 2050, the state’s population is expected to exceed eight million people. That means over three million more Coloradans will use water for drinking, landscaping, recreating and more. That’s a scary thought when you consider that climate change will likely result in less snowfall, the runoff of which is vital to supplying the Western Slope’s rivers.
The museum highlighted many ways residents can conserve this precious resource. Currently, over half the water use in metro Denver goes to watering lawns and landscaping. One solution to conserving water is as simple as turning off the sprinkler. Residents with lawns can also plant native grasses that need less water, instead of the Kentucky bluegrass that’s so common to suburban lawns (an obvious fact to some, but not so to too many).
The last exhibit in the museum was the “Think Tank,” where I was invited to write down what I plan to do in my daily life to conserve water. One visitor wrote, “turn off the sink when you brush those teeth!” and another wrote, “use less water while washing your hands.” Each person making one small change adds to mission of conservation, just as one small water drop adds to the mighty Colorado River.
For those who have not yet visited the museum, Earth Day may be the perfect time to stop by and explore the exhibits. The Headwaters Center will hold an Earth Day Celebration on Friday, April 22, from 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.
“There will be 11 organizations having educational activities and games upstairs in the event center, and guests can tour the museum after,” Evie Guay, the Headwaters River Journey Manager, told me.
The event costs $10 (including museum entry) and is free to kids 12 and under. Participating sponsors include Trout Unlimited, the Rocky Mountain Conservancy, the Headwaters Trails Alliance and others.
“It’s a celebration of the earth, and also a way for the community to get together again post-COVID!” said Guay. To learn more about the Earth Day Celebration or future events at the museum, visit HeadwatersRiverJourney.com.
An educational oasis beside the Fraser River awaits.