| Futuristic water lab part of new Colorado educational hub
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Futuristic water lab part of new Colorado educational hub

The new Hydro building on the CSU Spur campus houses Denver Water’s new water quality laboratoryIn one whirlwind of a field trip, students can challenge their taste buds in a test kitchen, watch veterinarians neuter a pit bull, and peek in at Denver Water’s scientists analyzing water samples.

It’s all part of an ambitious, unique educational hub in Denver spearheaded by the Colorado State University System, known as CSU Spur.
“We have this great opportunity to be part of researching and developing solutions for the future that we wouldn’t have if we were just in our own lab behind a fence at a treatment plant,” said Nicole Poncelet-Johnson, Denver Water’s director of water quality and treatment. 

CSU Spur is a free learning destination focused on connecting visitors with scientists working in three main buildings: Vida, Terra and Hydro — Life, Earth and Water. Partner organizations involved in the project include the Dumb Friends League, North American Agricultural Advisory Network, Temple Grandin Equine Center, and many more. The Rocky Mountain Section of the American Water Works Association also will have an office on site. 

Alfonso Gonzales, water quality laboratory manager, stands in Denver Water’s new water quality lab.Anchoring the Hydro building, which opened earlier this year, is Denver Water’s new water quality laboratory, which conducts nearly 200,000 water quality tests annually and now has space to triple that amount. 

It’s a far cry from Denver Water’s old water quality lab, a 54-year-old building tucked behind security gates at one of Denver’s three potable treatment plants. There, visitors had limited access, and employees squeezed through equipment and process bottlenecks, bumped elbows, and dreaded the finicky HVAC system.  

“It definitely had a bunker feel,” joked Alfonso Gonzales, water quality laboratory manager (pictured left in the new water lab)

Inspiring future water sector professionals 

Denver Water, which serves nearly one-fourth of all Coloradans, saw an opportunity to join forces with the Colorado State University system and house its new lab at the educational hub, allowing the utility to collaborate with academics and other experts while offering the public a unique chance to learn more about water quality, source water, watersheds and more. 

“Water and wastewater careers are really underrepresented as career paths for kids,” Poncelet-Johnson said. “Most of us got into this field because we fell into it. Here, kids can see scientists actually working, and maybe they’ll see it as a career path. Our presence there encourages kids to become involved in the sciences, and even if it’s not water, that will be a great legacy for Denver Water.”

Inside Hydro, a three-story shower rains down through a spiral staircase, and students can get their hands sandy making channels in an interactive watershed exhibit. Auditory learners can listen to a symphony tied to South Platte River stream flows, and those drawn to physics can make lightning and clouds under a glass bubble. 

“Our type of work isn’t really out in the open,” Gonzalez said. “But here, in this building geared toward the next generation, we’re really excited to see children be inspired.” 

Preserving history and envisioning the future

The LEED-Gold certified buildings at CSU Spur are part of the state’s much larger effort to revitalize Denver’s century-old National Western Center, a 250-acre site that is the longtime home of the National Western Stock Show and historic stockyards. State leaders wanted to create a year-round destination to serve as an agricultural learning hub, and in the dry West, water is crucial to almost all aspects of agriculture. 

“We can’t be isolated in discussing the problems that water utilities face,” said Travis Thompson, Denver Water’s public affairs manager. “We have to have these discussions with all voices at the table, and a space like this gives us that opportunity.” 

Denver Water's Michael Hendricks tests a water sample at the new water labAcross the street from Hydro, past the school bus loading zone, visitors can walk through the other buildings, Vida and Terra, to learn about animals, food, sustainability, art and more. (Pictured left, water quality senior technician Michael Hendricks tests a water sample for low-level nutrients in Denver Water’s new water quality lab.)

It’s a motivating atmosphere for those who work there, as well as for future scientists who may be exposed to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics) careers for the first time. 

Denver Water plans to finish moving, testing, calibrating and certifying its laboratory equipment by April, when the Hydro building will begin operating as the utility’s main lab.

With extra space and flexibility, laboratory managers are discussing ways to expand their testing capabilities, giving them an edge on detecting PFAS and other emerging contaminants. 

“We’ve built a lab for the future,” Poncelet-Johnson said. “Our hope is a place like this inspires other utilities to find similar opportunities that will help drive solutions for their region in the future.”