Guest Column | March 13, 2019

A Multimillion-Dollar Project Gets A Fresh Look Through Students' Eyes

By Cathy Proctor

CU engineering students tackle real-world design challenges at new Denver Water treatment plant.


On a raw but sunny day in January, 70 senior engineering students from the University of Colorado Boulder assembled on a flat, snow-covered piece of land sandwiched between Highway 93 and Ralston Reservoir.

Sporting notebooks, pens and camera phones, the students got their first look at the ground where Denver Water is building a new, state-of-the-art water treatment plant.

This spring, the students will work in teams, as their capstone senior project before they graduate, to create a design for the filter building, one of the major elements of the new plant. They will then pitch their design to a classroom review panel that will ultimately pick the semester’s winning team.

“Tens of thousands of hours have gone into the design of this treatment plant and the specific facilities you’re going to be looking at,” Doug Raitt, a Denver Water engineering construction manager, told the students as he introduced their capstone project.

“You don’t get to spend that much time on your designs. And you aren’t getting paid. You’re getting graded and it’s a competition,” he said.

Doug Raitt, a Denver Water engineering construction manager, introduces senior-level engineering students at the University of Colorado to their capstone project. (Photo credit: Denver Water)

The students have about three months to apply what they’ve learned about civil engineering to their final design project in a competition that mirrors the real-world selection process, said Matt Morris, the students’ instructor in the College of Engineering and Applied Science at CU Boulder.

“The class is structured to have the teams compete against each other with their designs. They produce drawings and reports for consideration and at the end of the semester the ‘client,’ will choose the winner,” Morris said.

During the semester, the students will learn more about the project from experts at Denver Water and its contractors who are working on the project.

“I like to arrange a project that’s really happening but not yet built, so the students can meet the team that’s working on it,” Morris said.

“Denver Water has been a great partner. We’ve done four or five projects with them.”

Denver Water has spent years designing the new Northwater Treatment Plant, now under construction at the site north of Golden where the students visited in January. The plant is part of a $600 million project to overhaul its northern treatment system, which also includes a new 8.5-mile pipeline and modifications to Moffat Treatment Plant, which opened in the 1930s.

The state-of-the-art Northwater Treatment Plant will be completed in 2024. (Credit: Denver Water)

Construction work on the project is expected to generate $405 million in economic impact across the metro area.

It’s not the first time CU’s engineering students have studied a Denver Water project as the capstone of their training.

“I reached out to Matt about two and a half years ago. I think there’s a professional responsibility to pay it forward to the next generation,” Raitt said.

This year the students are designing a filter building. In 2017, the capstone class focused on Denver Water’s overhaul of the Hillcrest site in southeast Denver, where two massive, 15-million-gallon water storage tanks are being removed and replaced with three new 15-million-gallon tanks.

In 2018, the capstone class focused on Denver Water’s planned expansion of Gross Reservoir about 12 miles southwest of the CU Boulder campus.

In addition to visiting the site of the new treatment plant, the students in January toured the Moffat Treatment Plant to learn what happens in a filter building.

A bus full of engineering students from the University of Colorado Boulder rolls up to the Moffat Treatment Plant in January 2019. (Credit: Denver Water)

“Some of the students have taken a water treatment class, but most of them have never seen a treatment plant. We wanted to show them how it functions and what it looks like in the real world,” Morris said.

The students said the site visits will inform their designs.

“To see the plant and the site is great. They are amazing facilities. Seeing them, you get tips on how to design them,” said student Ever Rodriguez.

From the site visits to the competition between the teams, the semester “really mimics the real world,” said Morris, who has taught the senior capstone class for seven years.

“There’s no textbook that tells them how to do this and they have to work in teams. It’s so realistic that it’s frustrating,” Morris said.

“At the end, almost all of them say that it was a great experience — but in the middle, I think they hate me.”