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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.

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Water Education Colorado

Fountain Creek

By Karla Demmler

Just think of Fountain Creek as a wayward adolescent—unkempt, prone to outbursts, and struggling to fill rising expectations.

Once a little creek that dried up in the summer, Fountain Creek now is a critical waterway connecting the rapidly urbanizing communities of Pueblo and Colorado Springs. But development is taking its toll. Raw sewage spills and floods drew a pair of federal lawsuits, along with state fines and the ire of Colorado Springs' downstream neighbors. Poor water quality continues to hound the creek. In a 2006 survey conducted by The Osprey Group, more than two-thirds of the respondents felt Fountain Creek's conditions were worsening.

The response: a convergence of community will and scientific research to find the momentum to create long-term solutions.

Unnatural flows
Among its many roles, Fountain Creek acts as both source and receptacle for Colorado Springs' water supply. Tributaries in the Fountain Creek watershed contribute about 15 percent of Colorado Springs drinking water. The city pumps another 70 percent from west of the Continental Divide, and the remainder of the city's supply originates as snow on Pikes Peak. After use by people and businesses, Colorado Springs discharges most of the West Slope water into Fountain Creek as wastewater effluent and return flows from lawn and other irrigation.

Development enabled by imported, non-native water changed Fountain Creek's flow patterns over time. Historically, sections of the creek partially dried up in the summer. Now the creek runs year-round, and at certain times of the year, its flows are almost entirely supported by wastewater effluent and irrigation return flows.

Increasing problems with flooding and erosion along the creek are well documented. In the 2003 Fountain Creek Watershed Plan, flooding, sedimentation and erosion ranked as the top three problems.

Fountain Creek resembles many small waterways in the arid West. Changing land use modifies the historic channel, urban development hems in the creek banks and forces them to narrow and straighten—and become more prone to floods and erosion. Throughout the watershed, the spread of impervious surfaces such as roads and parking lots send bursts of stormwater into the creek, instead of allowing for slower natural drainage through soils. To make matters worse, urban development infringes on the creek's natural flood zones. For example, portions of Pueblo's downtown lie directly within the creek's historic floodplain.

Many blame new development and imported water for the Fountain's problems. And with demands for more water to be pumped in, the problems may become worse.

In April 1999, a storm stalled over south central Colorado, an area prone to flash floods. The ground became so saturated that the surface became essentially impervious. As Fountain Creek surged to 13,200 cubic feet per second, huge chunks of streambank calved off. Landowners in the lower watershed watched as acres washed into the creek. In Pueblo, flood devastation was some of the worst. One city park was inundated and almost buried in sediment.

Stormwater solutions
Faced with flooding problems that won't abate, Colorado Springs' stormwater management ramped up over the last decade. They have a big job to do. The region's stormwater system is extensive, including 1,355 miles of stormwater pipeline, as well as some 3,069 points where storm drains discharge to creeks. With new development, these numbers continue to grow.

To help pay for improvements to the 40-plus-year-old system, the city levied a new stormwater enterprise fee, which cost the average household about $7.50 per month. Officials say the fee generated $14.3 million in 2007, and should bring in $15.6 million in 2008.

‘The city is excited to have the opportunity to make improvements to the stormwater system that have been needed for a long time.…Our budget in the past was only a couple million dollars a year. Now we have the opportunity to do a lot more,’ says Lisa Ross, senior stormwater engineer for the city.

In a June meeting, Colorado Springs officials assured the Pueblo City Council that they have identified a backlog of capital projects estimated to cost $295 million, with $66.5 million classified as high priority. Over the next five years, Colorado Springs earmarked money for 13 of 24 most critical projects.

In public presentations city officials tout the breadth of their efforts to help the Fountain, including new floodplain regulations, increased spending on stormwater infrastructure, water conservation programs and an ongoing non-potable water recycling system. They argue the efforts are sufficient to bring the watershed's flood problems under control—even as the city grows and adds more runoff.

But some downstream residents are not impressed, calling the Springs' stormwater initiatives nothing but long overdue maintenance. And there may be a long way to go between the city's good intentions and the on-the-ground measures necessary for lasting solutions.

Dennis Maroney, Pueblo's stormwater utility director, says the Springs' improvements are welcome, but long-term fixes must involve ways to ease urbanization's impact. The solutions include cluster development with more open space, narrower streets and fewer impervious areas, such as traditional asphalt parking lots.

Pueblo has been working to implement these sorts of solutions in its new annexations for the last two years.Developers are required to implement stormwater practices that ensure the creeks' new hydrograph matches its old one to the best extent practicable.

‘What Fountain Creek is doing, is trying to adapt to meet conditions,’ says Maroney. ‘But we have to address the causes rather than the symptoms. What we are seeing in Fountain Creek are really symptoms of upstream development…If we don't treat development differently, we will continue to have the same problems.’

But Maroney is positive about the work to resolve these issues in collaborative groups such as the Fountain Creek Vision Task Force. ‘Overall the community is working together much more than it has in the past.’

Some of the upstream development Maroney refers is the Banning-Lewis Ranch, already under construction on the northeastern border of Colorado Springs. The mega-development could house up to 140,000 new residents.
Water supply for this kind of growth is closely tied to Springs' proposal to construct the billion-dollar Southern Delivery System, a 43-mile pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir, designed to meet the region's water needs until 2046. The utility spent more than 11 years and $59 million advancing the SDS project—currently in the throes of the environmental review process with the federal government.

At completion, the pipeline is designed to bring some 78 million gallons of new water into the Colorado Springs area.

And this is exactly what downstream residents are afraid of. Studies sponsored by Colorado Springs have shown that the SDS project could double non-native water in Fountain Creek, to about 33 percent of average stream flow. It's a situation some feel is clearly untenable.

Despite ongoing opposition, Pueblo gave a nod to the pipeline as part of a six-party intergovernmental agreement signed in 2004. In exchange for support of the SDS pipeline, Pueblo, Aurora, Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, Pueblo Board of Water Works, Fountain and Colorado Springs, agreed to modify their water management operations to improve and maintain flows in the Arkansas River below Pueblo Reservoir.

It was one step forward for regional cooperation and additional water development in the area. But other legal and environmental hurdles remain. One of those hurdles is to how boost the creek's failing water quality.

Creek or sewer drain?

Fountain Creek is far from pristine. Common problems like trash, dirty stormwater discharges, irrigation inflows high in sediment and nutrients, and wastewater effluent make it hard for this struggling creek to grasp at good ecosystem health. Frequent sewage spills and increasing urbanization along the stream corridor help place the creek on the state's list of most polluted waters.

One red flag is Colorado Springs' history of sewage spills into the creek. It's enough to give any utilities manager heartburn. One of the worst happened during the 1999 flood, when approximately 70 million gallons of raw sewage spilled from the city's Las Vegas Wastewater Treatment Plant into the raging creek.

And the spills continued. Between 2004-2005, Springs logged 21 spills into the creek, some larger than others. In 2005, there were two major spills, one the result of vandalism and the other from a flash flood, releasing some 300,000 gallons of raw sewage into the waterway.

In June 2006, workers failed to shutoff a valve on a wastewater pipe, sending 62,000 gallons of sewage into Sand and Fountain creeks. In March 2007, a vandalism-related spill into a tributary of Fountain Creek sent another dirty water surge downstream.

The string of incidents angered Pueblo residents, provoked two federal lawsuits, and spurred the state to levy several $100,000-plus fines on the utility. As a result, between 2000 and 2007, the Colorado Springs Utilities invested almost $90 million to inspect and rehabilitate its wastewater collection system. The utility made a commitment to spend more than $250 million on continued improvements by 2025.

One of its newest projects is a spill recovery system that uses an existing diversion dam to capture the entire flow of the creek for up to four hours at flows of up to 170 cubic feet per second. The creek's contents can then empty into an 18 million gallon asphalt-lined holding pond until it is pumped and treated at the Las Vegas Wastewater Treatment Plant. The $10 million project is located on the former Pinello Ranch, south of Colorado Springs and downstream of all the city's current and proposed wastewater treatment plants.

Ongoing water quality studies by the state, Colorado State University-Pueblo, the U.S. Geological Survey, Lower

Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District and other partners investigate water quality hotspots. But there are no definitive answers to date. And so, poor water quality in the creek remains a point of contention.

‘What I did from day one was look for a place we could live together,’ says LAVWCD chair John Singletary. ‘If we can find a way to return water to the Arkansas in the same condition as (Colorado Springs) takes it out of the reservoir, I can support it.’

Cooperation and vision

Multiple efforts are in place to help bring Fountain Creek back from the brink of crisis. One is an ongoing Army Corps of Engineers study of flooding and erosion. Preliminary recommendations were released in late August.

The Corps document included ideas for development policy changes, among them:

  • Require post-development hydrographs to match pre-development;
  • Consider downstream impacts; and
  • Create a Fountain Creek Watershed Authority as a funding source for large-scale projects.  

The Corps also suggested a series of projects, ranging from ecosystem restoration, to channel stability and flood prevention structures.  Large-scale projects include a Pueblo levee and the construction of a Fountain Creek dam above Pueblo.

In another initiative, the LAVWCD signed an agreement with Colorado Springs to fund development of a Fountain Creek Master Plan. Each will contribute $300,000 over two years to study environmental concerns facing the creek and investigate potential solutions.

‘We are envisioning Fountain Creek as a recreational corridor,’ says LAVWCD General Manager Jay Winner. ‘The district has made Fountain Creek one of our three major priorities in 2008.’

Working to put all the puzzle pieces together, El Paso County launched the Fountain Creek Vision Task Force at Sen. Ken Salazar's urging. Comprised of diverse governmental, environmental representatives as well as other interest groups, the task force is working on a strategic plan to transform the Fountain into a regional asset and a healthy waterway.

Part of this vision is Sen. Ken Salazar's Crown Jewel initiative. Unveiled a year ago, Salazar's proposal would surround the creek with a network of trails, wildlife habitat, and even a state park. On a more controversial note, he also proposed a feasibility of a multi-purpose dam to help alleviate flooding and other environmental woes.

The Vision Task Force conducts regular meetings open to the public, and is brainstorming solutions to achieve its goals. The group began to tackle some of the thornier issues, such as potential funding sources for implementation.
Despite the challenges, the process appears to be working.

‘When we started getting into the substance of the matter,’ says Heather Bergman, task force facilitator, ‘people were doing it right. I feel we have really good representation from all the bodies. They send their staff to every meeting. People are doing a lot of work on this.’

After years of neglect and unknowns, Fountain Creek appears to be on the brink of a renaissance.

‘Now is the time,’ says Bergman.

And Fountain Creek is counting on it.

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