Hydro opening marks realization of vision for innovation at CSU Spur

Cowbells and the escalating rumble of stock show activity punctuated a Friday afternoon celebration marking completion of the CSU Spur campus and the opening of Hydro, a building focused on water research, innovation, and engagement.

A crowd of hundreds attended the event, filling the space outside Hydro’s undulating façade and extending across the intersection of National Western and Bettie Cram drives to occupy the entries of CSU Spur neighbors, the Vida and Terra buildings.  

“One of the things we hope you will see as you explore Spur are connections,” CSU System Chancellor Tony Frank said during event remarks. “At a time when there are so many opportunities for things to divide us, it is our hope that everyone who steps onto Spur will realize how much we have in common, and that we’re not just better together, we’re interdependent on each other.”

People gather outside the newly opened Hydro building.

Hundreds gathered Friday, Jan. 6, to celebrate completion of CSU Spur and the opening of the Hydro building.

Connections at Spur span domains and extend in different directions. The three buildings, with themes of water, health, and food, are part of a redevelopment and reimagination of the National Western Center in north Denver. The overarching goal of the campus is to support progress in areas centered on wellbeing and sustainability, both through active problem solving and by creating opportunities for learners at levels to understand and become part of the process.

In his remarks on Friday, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who served as strategic advisor to CSU Spur for three years before returning in 2021 to lead the Department of Agriculture for a second time, referred to the “stormy present” as the world faces challenges ranging from climate change and the spread of infectious diseases to armed conflict and the adequacy of the food supply. Those challenges, he continued, create opportunities.

“There is not a state in the Union that understands that as well as the state of Colorado,” he said. “This building behind me, this complex, this stock show, this city, this state, understands and appreciates not just the challenges we face, and the significance of food and agriculture to all of us, but more importantly that there is a way to transform agriculture so that it’s not just profitable for some but is productive for all, profitable for all, and sustainable for all.”

Hydro’s opening on Friday, Jan. 6, came just a day before the start of the 2023 National Western Stock Show, a 16-day celebration of agriculture that draws hundreds of thousands of attendees each year. It also came almost precisely a year after Spur started welcoming visitors with the Jan. 7, 2022, opening of the health-themed Vida building. The food-focused Terra building opened in June.

“Nothing demonstrates that great connection between urban areas and rural areas – between all parts of our state – than the Spur campus and the… stock show complex,” Colorado Gov. Jared Polis told the audience.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, speaking later in the program, talked about the significance for the city and state of the National Western Center redevelopment, and about the potential for a broader, global impact resulting from CSU Spur’s collaborative, interdisciplinary approach to research and innovation. He concluded by remarking on the development at the National Western Center of a sewer-heat recovery system, the largest of its kind in North America, that is meeting most of the heating and cooling needs for CSU Spur and will ultimately do the same for up to seven buildings at the center. “This is real sustainability and resiliency right here,” he said.

Two people speak to a group in the lobby of Hydro.
Two people interact with a stream table.

Left: CSU System Chancellor Tony Frank and Jocelyn Hittle, the CSU System’s associate vice chancellor for CSU Spur and special projects, meet guests in the Hydro building lobby before Friday’s ceremony. / Right: Andrew Warnock, director of CSU’s Natural Sciences Education and Outreach Center, demonstrates for U.S. Secretary of Education Tom Vilsack the use of an interactive stream table at the Hydro building.

One major collaboration at Spur involves Denver Water, which in coming months will open its new water quality lab on the third floor of the Hydro building. The facility will serve to inform the public while providing capacity for more than 200,000 tests each year to monitor the quality of water before treatment and after it is prepared for distribution to customers across the metropolitan area. 

In addition to housing Denver Water’s new water quality lab, Hydro will be home to a range of programs and initiatives focused on developing new technologies and approaches to conserve, protect, and monitor precious water resources. Among these is the Water Technology Acceleration Platform, or Water TAP, a program of CSU’s One Water Solutions Institute, which will take advantage of having access at Hydro to water from multiple sources to support development of new technologies and approaches to make less-than-pristine water safe to use for irrigation, flushing toilets and other purposes.

Hydro’s roof will feature CSU Spur’s second research green roof, this one exploring rooftop agrivoltaics, or how solar panels can accompany, and even support, urban agriculture efforts. In addition to CSU programs and initiatives, Hydro will provide space for nonprofit organizations focused on water and water education, and it will connect visitors to Western water issues through educational exhibits and rotating programming. The building also supports arts programming, including a flexible theatre space that will serve as a venue for performances and events.  

After Hydro opened on Friday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, the Spur campus came alive with demonstrations and presentations for throngs of visitors. Wearing elaborate, brightly colored costumes, dancers with CSU Pueblo Ballet Folklorico performed a series of traditional dances for the first performance in the theatre.

In the lobby outside, a line formed for coffee and pastries from Western Daughters Kitchen. The café, a second location from the owners of Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe in LoHi, offers breakfast and coffee in the morning, healthy grab-and-go items for lunch, and drinks and happy hour offerings in the afternoon, all with a focus on supporting regenerative agriculture and the community.

Through windows, visitors could see a just-completed ice sculpture of the CSU Spur logo resting above Betty Cram Drive. The road currently runs east/southeast into Denver’s Elyria-Swansea neighborhood. To the west, the pavement currently ends before reaching the South Platte River. One aspect of the National Western Center redevelopment and construction of CSU Spur is a focus on supporting local communities, and in time a bridge over the South Platte will serve to connect Elyria-Swansea to Globeville, to the west.

Dancers in colorful outfits dance on a stage.

Dancers with CSU Pueblo Ballet Folklorico performed in Hydro’s theatre.

While Friday was the first day Hydro was open to the public, many attendees were well-acquainted with CSU Spur. Parker resident Melissa Johnsen, watching as her daughter, 4-year-old Isla, and friend August, 5, experimented with an interactive stream table, said she was on her fourth visit to Spur and that she and her daughter were “hooked” on the campus.

Already on Friday, the two children had developed their own potato varietals, complete with googly eyes, at the Terra building, and they had engaged with exhibits from the Little Shop of Physics, learning, among other things, how the eye works.

The table is a sophisticated model that controls water flow, slope and other variables to demonstrate the process of erosion and deposition. Miniature trees, houses, and farm animals offer visitors the chance to explore how streams interact with the landscape and structures and dictate the best uses for different regions.

Using a toy donkey, August excavated what had been a sandy plain, and groundwater burbled up into a newly created reservoir. It was opening day at Hydro, and Johnsen had convinced Elizabeth Fontaine to bring August to join her and Isla for the day.

Johnsen and Fontaine looked on, smiling, as the two children continued their explorations in hydrology. “Now we can’t get them to leave,” Johnsen said. 

About CSU Spur   

CSU Spur is a free educational year-round public destination in Denver focused on engaging PreK-12 students, families, and visitors around food, water, and health. CSU Spur is a non-degree granting campus that showcases the work of the CSU System campuses: CSUCSU Pueblo, and CSU Global. Spur is built upon the land-grant mission of access to education and the belief that students can be anything they want to be. To inspire students and visitors to engage in important world issues, CSU Spur will bring together scientists to collaborate, put science on-display, and showcase career paths. The CSU Spur campus provides immersive learning experiences and cutting-edge research across three buildings: Vida, Terra, and Hydro. Learn more at CSUSpur.org.