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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

Browse articles and find a flipbook of the magazine here.

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Water Education Colorado

Fountain Creek’s New Advocate

By Jayla Poppleton

It’s not everyday that the government starts a watershed group. Watershed groups tend to be the non-profit, citizen-led counterparts to government agencies. But last year, through an act of the Colorado Legislature, the Fountain Creek Watershed, Flood Control and Greenway District arrived on the scene of a watershed plagued by flooding and other urban drainage-related problems. The district, though officially a government entity, will function like many watershed groups that serve to coordinate a multitude of players working to improve their shared watershed.

Gary Barber, who was hired as the district’s executive director in February, thinks the district is “a bit of a public policy experiment.”
“Hopefully, we bring the best qualities of a watershed group, an advocacy group, to the front, and we also bring forth the best aspects of a regional flood control, erosion control and storm control entity,” he says.

Hiring Barber was the first major action taken by the district. Based in an office courtesy of the Historic Arkansas River Project in Pueblo, Barber says the district’s next goal is to integrate three documents detailing the steps necessary to “get the watershed up to snuff.” An Army Corps of Engineers’ study on flood control, a master plan of Colorado Springs Utilities and the Lower Arkansas Water Conservancy District for mitigation in the wake of the utility’s Southern Delivery System project, and a strategic plan of the Fountain Creek Vision Task Force—including bolstering the watershed’s value for both recreation and habitat—will be integrated as one.
A steep watershed on the east side of the Continental Divide, Fountain Creek spills downward from about 14,000 to 4,000 feet. Its sparsely vegetated, sandy hillsides do little to slow the heavy rains unleashed by flashy afternoon rainstorms, making the creek vulnerable to erosion, sedimentation and flooding. As the watershed’s growing cities have laid down impervious surfaces like buildings and parking lots, while also importing West Slope water that added to the flow in Fountain Creek, they have exacerbated the historic problem.

Pueblo County Commissioner Jeff Chostner summarizes Fountain Creek’s situation as “basically taking a creek that’s not designed to handle that water flow and turning it into a river.” Chostner, also serving as chairman of the new district’s board of directors, says building water-restraint systems to prevent damage will be a major focus.
Colorado Springs Utilities’ Southern Delivery System project, scheduled to be completed by 2016, will pipe additional imported water 40 miles north from Pueblo Reservoir. Couple that with projected population growth and the blemish of past sewer spills that drew litigation from the Sierra Club and the Pueblo District Attorney, and potential impacts to the stream have drawn a fair amount of attention. In response, the utility has stepped up with a commitment to restore the creek and is one of the district’s biggest supporters.

“The challenge,” explains Barber, “is how do you mitigate the effects of [population growth] so it doesn’t have negative consequences on your neighbors downstream?” In addition to slowing flows through ecologically-beneficial projects like diverting storm runoff into engineered wetlands, the utility, in conjunction with the district, is building the nation’s first fish passage for small plains fish. The district’s plans also range from dredging excessive sediments in lower Fountain Creek to aiding Pueblo with plans for urban renewal.

As Barber strives to coordinate a holistic watershed improvement program, he’ll work to bring private property owners into the fold, making sure they’re aware of the opportunities to secure funding through the Natural Resources Conservation Service or other sources to make improvements. “We’re trying to make the district a clearinghouse of information and coordination,” he says.

With an advance from Colorado Springs Utilities of $600,000 on the $50 million it must provide the district once water begins running from the Southern Delivery System, the district can afford to pay for Barber’s position and support staff as well as the comprehensive plan that ties together previous work. But even that $50 million ultimately won’t be enough, says Chostner. “It will be like seed money, but we’re going to need all kinds of money to take care of these projects.” In order to secure ongoing funding, Barber, Chostner and the district may run a ballot initiative in El Paso and Pueblo counties in 2012 to add a mill levy.

The district was modeled on the Denver Urban Drainage District, which partners with the non-profit Greenway Foundation to accomplish a similar range of goals in Denver. “We looked to Denver and said, ‘What has Denver done?’ because they’ve been very successful,” explains Carol Baker, Fountain Creek project manager for Colorado Springs Utilities and member of both the citizens’ advisory group and the technical advisory committee of the new district.

“We said okay, if we have a non-profit, which we have—the Fountain Creek Foundation—and we couple that with a district, and then we walk hand-in-hand with all the city and county governments in the watershed, we can get grants, we can get funding and we can make the watershed into an amenity that people throughout the watershed can enjoy and want to take care of.”

“There are lots of challenges ahead,” acknowledges Baker, who has been involved on Fountain Creek since 2001. “But we can overcome them because of the long and hard efforts of all these people.”

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