DENVER • Thank you, William K. Reilly.

Thank you for saving our river from drowning.

Reilly, now 79, is the former Environmental Protection Agency administrator who vetoed the Two Forks project that in 1990 sought to dam the South Platte upstream from the one stop sign in the mountain town of Deckers.

“It was all systems go,” Reilly said last week, and the 20 miles of irreplaceable trout habitat where hundreds of kids like me learned to fly fish would be nothing more than a sad bedtime story.

This fragile, world-class trout fishery would have been flooded below the 615-foot Two Forks dam, a structure roughly the size of Hoover Dam. Twenty-five miles southwest of Denver and 42 miles northwest from Colorado Springs, six towns and a priceless outdoor recreation area would have been washed away.

So thank you.

Can this man beat the Manitou Incline record for ascents in a year?

“How’s the river doing, anyway?” Reilly asked before his keynote speech for Colorado Trout Unlimited’s annual River Stewardship Gala here Thursday.

Really well, considering. The Hayman fire was rough on everybody, and the trout populations are gradually returning. But here’s the real catch: At least this stretch of river still exists.

Thanks to Reilly.

As Reilly told it from his home in San Francisco, the Two Forks dam was “a foregone conclusion from every angle” when the late George H.W. Bush hired him as head of the EPA in 1989.

“You don’t bring the World Wildlife president into the EPA to just sit there. You want drive, action,” Reilly said. “I was determined in my authority to make him the environmental president.”

Damming the confluence of the north and south forks of the South Platte was long viewed as a solution to the water demands of the Denver suburbs that grew another neighborhood in the time you read this.

“The decision to start the veto process was signed on Good Friday,” Reilly said.

Only once has Good Friday been good-er.

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Reilly is not a fisherman. That’s the funny part. But he saw the water battles here in a different light. He observed a metro area that “had no real water metering at the time,” where the tradition of Western water waste ran wild, where sprinklers flipped on while it was raining.

“Lord, the tension and things that were said. The rancor, you could cut it with a knife,” Reilly said. “A lot of people were very angry with that decision. They believed it wasn’t sustainable this way.”

Three decades later, here’s hoping the same folks have tubed the South Platte in August, camped on the riverbanks or fished the Blue-Winged Olive hatch that should get rolling any day now.

“The president was great in the sense that he never objected to the decision that I had made,” Reilly said.

Think of the place on Earth where you learned to love whatever you love most. For me, my Dad and hundreds of fly fishers up and down the Front Range, that’s the boulders of Cheesman Canyon and the “Deckers” stretch of the South Platte River: a clean, cold tailwater that seems impossible just an hour-ish from a pair of booming metro areas.

The fishery there is technically challenging and resilient, a survivor of the heartbreaking Hayman fire, not to mention the weekend crowds that smother its dusty parking lots.

However you view Deckers, it’s home, and it’s difficult to imagine the past 30 years without it.

“If I had one place in the world where I could fish every day, it would be Cheesman Canyon,” said Tucker Ladd, who owns Trouts Fly Fishing, a fly shop and guide service in Denver.

Name a Front Range fly shop, and it guides clients at Deckers. Angler’s Covey, Blue Quill Angler, Anglers All, the rest. Trouts put 1,100 people on the water last year. Half spent their day at Deckers.

“If you don’t have Deckers and that stretch of the South Platte, imagine the pressure everywhere else,” Ladd said. “That pressure doesn’t just disappear. It goes elsewhere — the Big Thompson, Poudre, Bear Creek, Clear Creek, I-70 gets hit harder. All the other rivers would be overwhelmed.”

Reilly’s first thank you — a very Colorado thank you — arrived shortly after his decision to halt Two Forks had been made under a provision of the Clean Water Act. On a jaunt near Deckers, not far from the Gill Trail trailhead, Reilly and a companion came upon a fisherman whose truck had slid into a snowbank. The truck had a bumper sticker with a red slash through “Two Forks.” Told of his company, the man offered a toke of his appreciation.

“He was probably in his 20s,” Reilly said. “When we told him about the bumper sticker, how we were part of it, he says to us, ‘No kidding. Well, I’ve got some first-class (expletive) up in my cabin. If you guys would come up with me, I would love to share it with you.’”

Reilly said he politely declined the offer. Now he shares two takeaways for future reference in Colorado.

One, “Nothing in our field is ever final. This could return, or something like it. There will be a future generation that believes the time is right and a project like this is worth it,” he said.

Two, “Lobbying, communication, data, analysis with details, honesty and integrity, it all works in our system. It really does. I know a lot of activists despair that it doesn’t, but it does.

“I don’t think we knew there were so many fishermen in the country. It seemed like half of them wrote to us,” Reilly said. “The government, they were a little bit taken aback. They had some negative blow-back, but then there was a cascade of positive mail from fishermen that came in.”

Here’s another. Thank you.

(Contact Gazette sports columnist Paul Klee at paul.klee@gazette.com or on Twitter at @bypaulklee.)

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