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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

Cleaning Up Urban Runoff

By Lori Ozzello

In most towns in Colorado, rain and melted snow flow untreated down the gutter, into the storm drain and directly to the nearest river. Recently however, because of stricter federal and state regulations, even small Colorado cities are making an effort to clean up their stormwater before it hits the gutter.

‘We have six years to get everything done and it's a lot of work,’ says Jennifer Powell, Montrose's stormwater coordinator.

Part of her job is to see to it that the city of 14,000 complies with the state's amended Phase II stormwater regulations to bring small cities into line with EPA rules. Phase II applies to small cities, generally those with populations above 10,000, and it is an extension of Phase I, instituted for larger cities in the 1990s.

In 2001, Colorado adopted Phase II, which is designed to ensure that when it rains or snows, healthy rivers and streams don't suffer jolts of contaminated runoff. This necessitates more aggressive construction permitting, discharge controls, education, policies on roadway de-icing and street cleaning, and establishing long-term monitoring programs.

Stormwater, for the uninitiated, isn't just rain or snow.

‘Stormwater is runoff from rain or snow on urban surfaces that discharges to the nearest creek,’ says Donna Scott, Boulder's stormwater quality specialist. ‘There is a witch's brew included in that—car oil, brake pad particulates, air pollution. It's really dirty.’

Which is exactly why water quality experts, scientists, the EPA and others think stormwater rules are necessary and timely. EPA's industrial discharge standards go back more than 30 years. In 1987, Congress amended the Clean Water Act to require the EPA to address stormwater discharges. Phase I, initiated in 1990, applied to cities of 100,000 or more. Phase II regulations came out in December 1999 and went into effect in March 2003.

‘Our intent is to improve the environment, not just meet the regulations,’ Scott says. ‘That makes a difference in our program. We're not just checking off a box. We want to protect our creeks.’

Cities across the state, depending on funding, location and personnel, take different approaches to fulfilling the stormwater requirements. Fort Collins and Boulder established separate stormwater utilities and fees. Montrose, Durango and unincorporated Douglas County pay for theirs out of their respective general funds.

Some cities, like Fort Collins and Boulder, anticipated the changes and started work in advance of changes in state and federal laws. Smaller cities piggybacked with larger neighbors, making programs more affordable. But some, like Montrose and Durango, are on their own.

Watching over it all is Nathan Moore, an environmental protection specialist for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

‘Our job is to assist cities to implement the program with the least resources and best results,’ Moore says. ‘It's going to vary from city to city and county to county…Everyone is moving forward. Some small cities have fallen a little behind. A lot have found innovative solutions to comply.’

Some cities have examined other programs to see if anything can do double duty. Water festivals, for instance, fulfill part of the education requirement. Stormdrain stenciling—marking the gutter drains with decals or spraypainted stencils—has been a hit in a lot of places where schoolchildren have volunteered to do the work. Not only are the students learning, they're teaching the public at large at a savings to their cities.

Contractors, for their part, must put up silt fences to prevent erosion and stop soil from being washed into streams or rivers. In short, everyone's got to be doing something to protect water.

Keeping it Clean Around the State
Stormwater cleanup is an unfunded mandate, and many smaller cities have had to get creative to implement the new rules. In Montrose, Jennifer Powell is not only the stormwater coordinator, she's also the construction inspector. To help meet the rules' education requirement, she designs and publishes brochures to educate citizens. She's an instructor at the annual children's water festival. Powell will be the one to order bumper stickers and refrigerator magnets for the upcoming public outreach campaign and to plan special events. Right now, she's also the one to explain to contractors why they need to build berms, put up silt fences and obey the stricter rules to protect waterways.

Construction applicants in Montrose sign a form stating they are compliant with the state's stormwater act, and that they've submitted their state paperwork and site plan. Powell said she's able to do some inspections, but, ‘We don't have the manpower to do a lot.’

Montrose pays for stormwater coordination through its general fund, which in turn is supported by a city-wide sales tax. Durango's done the same thing, says the city's environmental engineer Kinsey Holton, and so far has avoided raising rates, charging permit fees or seeking additional funding.

Right now, he says, the city is focused on making certain developers and contractors follow the construction rules and on fulfilling education requirements.

‘A local boy scout, Travis Campbell, helped us to mark all our storm drains as his Eagle Scout project,’ Holton remembers. ‘He and his buddies pretty much knocked out the whole city over the summer.’

The round, plastic markers adhere to concrete curbs above the storm drains. Each one declares, ‘Drains to river, no dumping’ and has a picture of a fish. Holton says only a few have been pried off, and then only because the concrete, not the adhesive, gave way.

At the opposite end of the state, Fort Collins city council members in 1990 saw the federal handwriting on the wall. The city, according to its Web site, began charging a stormwater fee in 1976. Today its $12 residential charge is aimed at continued maintenance and system improvements.

Thinking the city would be in the first group, or Phase I, to have to comply, it hired Kevin McBride in 1991. But, Fort Collins fell just below the 100,000 population cutoff at the time, so it had until 2003—a full 12 years—to meet the requirements.

‘We got a head start,’ McBride explains. ‘There were council people at the time who were interested and tuned in.

They had already formed a stormwater utility. What an excellent situation that was to work in.’

Instead of inventing a whole new program, McBride says, the staff looked for ways to integrate stormwater quality issues with programs that were already in place. The extra time the city had also gave them the leeway to develop a couple of new programs, add some extra databases and hire people.

To the south, at about the same time, the city of Boulder was doing the same thing. It put together a comprehensive drainage master plan in 1989 and recognized stormwater should be included, says Donna Scott, Boulder's stormwater quality specialist.

The program, paid for by stormwater utility fees, continues and includes an education component and a household hazardous waste program.

‘Boulder for years has had an education program,’ says Curry Rosato, the city's watershed outreach coordinator. A former teacher, she and her staff are involved in a variety of education efforts, including classroom activities and children's water festivals.

Boulder teamed up with some of its county neighbors—Longmont, Louisville, Erie, Superior and Boulder County itself—to form WASH, or the Watershed Approach to Stream Health Project, an education project aimed at helping its member-cities share costs and meet the regulations' first two requirements, public education and outreach and public involvement. In 2004, the Colorado Association for Environmental Education recognized WASH as the best new educational program.

Douglas County is coming from a different angle altogether. Most of its rapid growth has occurred in the last 25 years. Its infrastructure, installed by developers then handed over to the county for maintenance, is relatively new. And the county could, and did, make its regulations more stringent than national and state standards, says Douglas County hydrologist Jim Dederick.

The county developed a construction manual to ensure homebuilders, developers and designers understood and adhered to its measures.

‘We spent a lot of time developing it,’ Dederick says, ‘meeting with homebuilders, the public. They all had an opportunity to comment. We developed a manual that's very user friendly. It's … broken out for design engineers, contractors, etc. For the most part, feedback's been pretty positive. We worked hard. Didn't sneak up on people.

‘Would they rather not have the criteria? Sure. It would be cheaper and easier. But this helps us to be consistent. When folks come to Douglas County, they know they'll all be treated the same. Several other land use managers are adopting these measures—Arapahoe County, Lone Tree, Castle Rock, other entities nationwide. We're sharing it. It's free on our Web site.’

This points to an interesting, often unnoticed practice: The people who run these programs are talking to one another and sharing ideas and solutions. Dederick says he called his counterparts in Denver and Aurora who had been required to meet the criteria earlier. They gave him advice.

‘Sharing is born out of necessity,’ Dederick says. ‘The state encourages sharing. But it goes unnoticed by most people.’

Durango's Holton credits the state's department of public health and environment with the coaching and guidance that made the difference. And others mentioned casually who they'd met at meetings, who they'd called, who pointed them in the right direction.

‘Phase I cities helped the Phase II cities,’ Dederick says. ‘It's really a good network. Everybody's working to help everyone out.’

Although all the stormwater coordinators interviewed for this story agree the stormwater regulations are likely to become tighter, none complained. But they did note that making these programs work comes at a price.

‘This is unfunded,’ Dederick says. ‘We have to do it [all], it's not multiple choice. We have to figure out how to pay for it.’

Says Boulder's Scott: ‘There's a cost to growth. If we want healthy streams and clean water, we have to pay for it, one way or another.’

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