The Fountain Creek District launches series of meetings to iron out rights protection with flood mitigation

September 29, 2014
Fountain Creek Watershed

Fountain Creek Watershed

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

The question of how flood control projects on Fountain Creek can be built without harming water rights will be taken up next month in the heart of farm country.

The Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District will host the first of a series of meetings to discuss the issue during the winter water meeting set for Oct. 17 at Otero Junior College in La Junta.

The winter water meeting will be hosted by the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and will bring together some of the largest ditch companies east of Pueblo.

The group determines how a court-decreed program that allows farmers to store water in Lake Pueblo or ditch company reservoirs outside the growing season will operate.

That’s similar to the issue at hand on Fountain Creek, where flood control dams have been proposed, primarily to protect property in Pueblo.

At the July meeting of the Arkansas Basin Roundtable, a grant that proposed to look at the feasibility of Fountain Creek dams was rejected out of hand because several farmers objected to altering water rights to accommodate the dams.

They argued that junior water rights would be injured by such storage.

The timed release of water at more useful times in programs such as the winter water program could actually enhance water rights, however. Some have said this is possible with flood control dams.

In fact, the Denver Urban Drainage District is attempting to work through the same issue, Executive Director Larry Small told the board.

“We need to make it clear we have no intention of harming anyone’s water rights,” Pueblo County Commissioner Terry Hart said.

Several other meetings are planned by the Fountain Creek district to determine if flood control can be done in a way that keeps junior rights whole.

Meanwhile, the district is starting to prioritize spending prior to Colorado Springs’ $50 million payment as part of the Southern Delivery System. Here’s a report from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain:

A district formed to improve Fountain Creek wants to start planning how it will use $50 million in funding that will begin arriving when the Southern Delivery System pipeline comes on line.

“We have to get an idea of what our priorities are before a dime arrives,” said Pueblo County Commissioner Terry Hart, a member of the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District board.

The $50 million will be paid to the district over five years by Colorado Springs Utilities as part of its 1041 agreement with Pueblo County. The money is for building flood control projects that primarily benefit Pueblo, such as a dam or series of dams.

SDS is projected to be fully permitted and online as soon as 2016, so the checks could begin coming in early 2017.

The district does not want to be put in a position of having to directly spend the money, but wants to use it to leverage funding from other sources.

“The projects identified so far exceed $100 million,” Hart said. “There could be even more as we branch out of the core area. We need to find the best ways to leverage other grants.”

Hart asked the board to form a committee specifically to look at how the money would be spent. It would include representatives from Pueblo County, the district and Utilities.

That conversation comes even as the district watches the progress of a stormwater vote in El Paso County this November and sets its budget for next year.

The vote will determine whether Colorado Springs and its neighbors will agree to fund stormwater improvements to the tune of $39 million annually beginning in 2016. That would satisfy other requirements of the 1041 agreement.

The district also is looking at whether its own budget could be paid with advance interest payments from Colorado Springs Utilities or if it’s time to pass the hat again among member governments.

At the meeting, Hart noted that the district is relying heavily on voluntary contributions and must start looking at its real operating costs if it is to become sustainable.

Finally, water quality is a concern and responsibility on Fountain Creek as well. Here’s a report from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain:

While the focus lately has been on reining in water on Fountain Creek, the quality of that water is important too.

“We have a statutory duty to clean up the Fountain Creek watershed,” said Pueblo County Commissioner Terry Hart Friday at the meeting of the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District. “There are significant problems that we still don’t know enough about.”

So the board caught up on the science of water quality from Del Nimmo and Scott Herrmann, who have spent years studying water quality on Fountain Creek, the Arkansas River and Lake Pueblo.

The three are interconnected, Nimmo explained.

“We have tremendous resources and they are all connected,” Nimmo said. “They are tied to the reservoir.”

Lesson 1: Invasive species in Lake Pueblo will have more opportunity to spread to Fountain Creek and reservoirs in Pueblo County when the Southern Delivery System pipeline is completed, Herrmann explained.

Lesson 2: Mercury has accumulated in the water and fish in the headwater areas of Fountain Creek and Monument Creek, where the scientists did not expect to find it. Nimmo’s theory is that emissions from power plants or from former smelters in both Pueblo and El Paso counties contributed to this, but that’s not been proved. He suggested the district think in terms of an “airshed” as well as a watershed.

Lesson 3: The researchers have baseline data about water quality prior to the large, destructive Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires. They also collected samples of the charcoal-laden water after the first big rainfall following the Waldo Canyon Fire in 2012.

“This study needs to be repeated about now, in the next year, to see what effect the fire had,” Herrmann said.

Nimmo and Herrmann have headed up numerous Fountain Creek studies at Colorado State University-Pueblo over the past decade. Herrmann has studied aquatic life in Lake Pueblo since its construction in the early 1970s. Nimmo was involved in other studies on the Upper Arkansas River near Leadville as well.

“We need to continue this type of study,” Hart said. “It should be a district project.”

More Fountain Creek coverage here.


@CityofSteamboat starts to revamp stormwater maintenance program without busting its budget — Steamboat Today

September 24, 2014

Here’s an excerpt.

A year after the city was grappling with the potentially enormous cost of improving its aging stormwater system, the city has started to revamp its stormwater maintenance program without busting its budget or assessing property owners a new fee to help cover the cost.

The city also is earning kudos as it starts to adopt the recommendations of a much-praised citizen task force that spent more than 500 volunteer hours analyzing the city’s storm water infrastructure.

“We’ve historically maintained maybe a dozen culverts per year, and typically we’re just chasing problems and complaints,” Kelly Heaney, the city’s new water resources manager, said last week as she briefed the council on the improvements. “This year with the additional resources we were able to maintain 45 culverts in less than two months.”

Steamboat City Council members liked what they heard.

The biggest changes the city has made this year include hiring Heaney, increasing the streets maintenance budget and adding two seasonal employees dedicated to drainage maintenance.

All of the stormwater improvements in 2014 cost $302,000 and included $47,000 for capital improvements, according to Public Works Director Chuck Anderson.

The total cost of the improvements this year was far less than some of the multi-million dollar options the city was presented with last year for improving its neglected stormwater system.

Early last year, a Minnesota consulting firm that was paid $180,000 to study the city’s stormwater infrastructure, which includes bridges, culverts and dams, called for the city to possibly spend more than $10 million in new capital projects to upgrade its stormwater system and help manage future flooding and problems associated with annual spring runoff.

Faced with the high cost, city officials at one point floated the idea of assessing a fee to property owners to help pay for the improvements.

Before that, city officials were bracing for recommendations carrying a price tag even higher than the $10 million.

The city assembled the stormwater task force to look over the master plan and make recommendations for how to implement and fund it.

While several other communities in Colorado have turned to new fees on property owners to pay for expensive upgrades, the task force here recommended against that option at this time.

Instead, they called on the city to add more money in the annual budget for personnel to more proactively maintain the system.

More stormwater coverage here.


Sean Cronin: “…as of August 28, 2014, 91% of the 44 damaged ditches are now back online” #COflood

September 15, 2014

Sean Cronin and John McClow at the 2014 CFWE President's Award Reception

Sean Cronin and John McClow at the 2014 CFWE President’s Award Reception


After the flood Mr. Cronin found himself in meeting after meeting from the early hours on September 12 thru the weekend and on and on for the next few months. Here’s what he told the folks at the Colorado Water Foundation for Water Education President’s Award shindig this spring where he was named an Emerging Leader. Here’s part of the story of the flood from his point of view:

When asked back in January of 2014 to put something together for Coyote Gulch I responded “am really short on time, my calendar frees up in March”. Well spring came and went, summer was a blur and now it is a full year since the devastating floods of September 2013. To be honest, if I wrote something in January, I think it would have been a bit pessimistic, as often times the recovery efforts were all consuming and really challenged any sense of hope. Ironic that it was the workload of the flood recovery that prevented me from writing and it was the flood that taught me yet another lesson, let things ferment and breath; given time even dire situations will eventually show you an encouraging future.

In September 2013, St. Vrain Creek experienced a catastrophic flood event which uprooted roadways, severely eroded private property, ruined homes, dramatically changed the creek corridor, and significantly damaged or destroyed public and private raw water infrastructure. Because there were limited federal, state and local jurisdictions to modify the post-flood stream condition, it became clear to many that private/public partnerships and multi-agency cooperation was critical for a successful recovery.

During the early weeks of the September 2013 Flood recovery, repairs were occurring in some locations, though in other areas property owners were asking “who is going to fix this?” The St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District immediately recognized that the property owners’ rights needed to be a top priority. However, the scale of the flooding disaster and the interconnectivity of a living steam and associated ecosystem presented some financial and interdependency challenges. For example, it was not a stretch to imagine that there would likely be instances of individual efforts to restore specific segments of the stream that would then create problems downstream.

To minimize recovery challenges and maximize limited resources, many agencies, including Boulder County, City of Longmont, Town of Lyons, and the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District, promoted and implemented a strategy of collaboration. The collaboration along St. Vrain Creek started in the weeks following the flood and was quickly viewed by impacted citizens as safe, un-bureaucratic, nimble, and effective. In the months to follow, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) provided significant financial assistance to ditch companies, in addition to numerous agencies for the furtherance of collaboration. Today these collaborative efforts are now known as “Coalitions”, and one is occurring in each of the flood impacted tributaries of the South Platte River.

Through vision, leadership, hard work, multi-agency and nonprofit support, and Ditch Company and property owner persistence the recovery effort has far surpassed the expectations of many who stood in awe of the flood ravaged areas. For example, within the boundaries of St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District (DWR District 5) 44 of the 94 local ditches suffered damaged infrastructure from the flood at an estimated cost of $18.4M.

Through FEMA, CWCB, and grants administered by Northern Water, financial assistance was provided and as of August 28, 2014, 91% of the 44 damaged ditches are now back online, with 93% expected back online after 2014. Furthermore, many ditch companies recognized the need to rebuild their infrastructure with consideration given to the ecosystem and to design elements that would withstand future high-flow events. In the St. Vrain Creek alone, there are three new diversions that pre-flood were fish impediments, and are now fish passable, with an additional four diversions under consideration or design. Although the collaborative Coalitions didn’t lift a shovel, their collective expertise, continual internal and external communications, and identification of financial and technical resources played a key role in the recovery.

A full report and executive summary of the ditch infrastructure repairs, maps, and photos are available on the website of St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District (http://www.svlhwcd.org), under the “2013 Flood” tab.

One year later, the work is still not complete. Each of the Coalitions are actively working on producing their own watershed specific “Master Plans” that when complete will promote a holistic healthy riparian corridor and a stream system that will be better able to handle future floods, while preserving critical infrastructure, including that used for agricultural production. If successful, these Master Plans will be embraced by affected property owners, water rights owners, ditch companies, and government agencies.

As water mangers we are trained to manage around the extremes of drought and spring runoff. September 2013 reminded me that Mother Nature is letting us manage, but when she wants to change the rules, we are pretty much at her mercy. It is said that over time memories of disasters wane resulting in some people rebuilding in a manner that does not mitigate future disaster risk. Time will tell – for now I am hopeful that our professional water community learned from this disaster and those lessons can be passed on to future water managers.

For me, the events that transpired in September 2013 will shape my approach to water management. As I look back, I am confident the water system we rebuilt is reflective of our societal values and a wonderful legacy for future caretakers of our natural resources. Everyone involved in this recovery should be very proud to be in a profession that cares so deeply about “managing” a resource that provides for the incredible quality of life we all enjoy. I will just continue to be mindful who is really in charge.

Below is a gallery of then and now photos of the irrigation infrastructure along the St. Vrain River. Credit to the ditch companies.

Here’s a presentation from Boulder County: 2014-08-05_ByTheNumbers_FinalWithTalkingPoints

Finally, here’s a map of the river with the locations of enhanced fish passage noted.

More St. Vrain River coverage here


Fountain Creek “Creek Week” September 27 thru October 5

September 8, 2014

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Plans are being made to clean up litter throughout the Fountain Creek watershed during Creek Week, Sept. 27-Oct. 5 in Pueblo and El Paso counties.

The event is sponsored by the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District, which was formed five years ago to improve the drainage.

At its last meeting, the Fountain Creek board learned more than 20 groups already have committed time, materials or money to the effort.

Trash that makes its way into Fountain Creek can degrade water quality, harm wildlife, create safety hazards and clog irrigation or drainage structures.

Businesses, churches, schools, nonprofits, neighborhood associations, youth groups, service clubs and individuals are encouraged to form work groups, pick a work date within the time frame, pick a location and pick it up.

Information about Creek Week and how to register a crew is available at http://fountain-crk.org.

More Fountain Creek coverage here.


Fountain Creek flood mitigation dam(s) and the issue of prior appropriation

September 4, 2014
Flood irrigation in the Arkansas Valley via Greg Hobbs

Flood irrigation in the Arkansas Valley via Greg Hobbs

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

A discussion about water rights, the first step to looking at building dams or detention ponds on Fountain Creek, is moving ahead. The project is being coordinated by the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District, and would fit in with a larger study looking at flood control on Fountain Creek.

It’s a hot-button issue with farmers in the Lower Arkansas Valley, who see the capture of flood flows on Fountain Creek as a threat to junior water rights. At an Arkansas Basin Roundtable meeting last month, the need for a water rights study killed a proposal to look at the feasibility of building dams.

A $58,000 program by the Fountain Creek district will look at just the water rights issue. It will be funded by Colorado Springs Utilities, Pueblo West, Security, Fountain, the Pueblo Board of Water Works and the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, with in-kind support from Utilities and the Fountain Creek district. The process will bring together downstream water rights holders and state officials in a series of meetings to identify how water rights could be harmed by projects meant to provide public safety and what action could be taken to mitigate the damage.

All of the questions about how water moves throughout the Arkansas River basin would not be answered, but some ways to provide water through releases from Lake Pueblo or by timing releases from Fountain Creek structures would be explored, said Mark Shea, Fountain Creek point man for Utilities.

“There could be other beneficial uses, providing waterfowl or fish habitat, and allowing flood flows to be exchanged up Fountain Creek,” Shea said.

Melissa Esquibel, Pueblo board member of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, said the Lower Ark also should be involved in the project.

“There is a lot mistrust and misinformation, so we need to take the right path,” she said. “There are legitimate concerns that arise from past issues.”

Pueblo County Commissioner Terry Hart agreed.

“If we are perceived as an 800-pound gorilla, we’ll get nowhere,” Hart said. “We’re talking about people and their livelihoods.”

Pueblo City Councilwoman Eva Montoya, who chairs the Fountain Creek board, said the dialogue is an opportunity to balance public safety and the need to protect water rights.

“We need to rebuild trust,” she said.

More prior appropriation coverage here.


“It’s a well thought out proposal that we’ve been working on for two years” — Dennis Hisey #COpolitics

September 3, 2014
Fountain Creek Watershed

Fountain Creek Watershed

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

El Paso County voters will decide in November whether to implement a fee to provide $39 million annually for stormwater protection by creating the Pikes Peaks Regional Drainage Authority. Commissioners Tuesday finalized an intergovernmental agreement and placed the issue on the ballot on a 5-0 vote.

“It’s a well thought out proposal that we’ve been working on for two years,” said Dennis Hisey, chairman of the commissioners. “It’s a vehicle that will put our stormwater protection on track with other communities throughout the state.”

The 11-member authority would include the mayor of Colorado Springs, five members appointed by Colorado Springs City Council, two members appointed by commissioners and one each from Fountain, Manitou Springs and Green Mountain Falls.

The authority would collect up to $39 million in 2016 through fees collected on property within the Fountain Creek watershed. The fee would be determined based on impervious surface area, density, land use and ownership, according to the IGA. Over the next 20 years, the money would go toward a $700 million list of projects, and after that, a smaller fee would pay for maintenance. The average homeowner would pay about $7.70 per month.

Mayor Steve Bach opposes the fee, which he calls a tax, and has suggested alternative ways to finance improvements Colorado Spring needs and is obligated to make under its permits for the Southern Delivery System. Colorado Springs City Council supported the IGA by a 7-2 vote.

“We’re expecting a robust campaign,” Hisey said. “Any time you ask for money, there’s a need to educate the voters and make your case.”

More stormwater coverage here.


Dam dilemma looms for planners — The Pueblo Chieftain

September 1, 2014
Fountain Creek Watershed

Fountain Creek Watershed

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Building dams to slow down the pace of floodwater could save lives and reduce the destruction of property. But, it might also deprive a farmer of irrigation water or even deliver more to neighbors with more senior water rights. It could cause conflicts with neighboring states that have entered into compacts with Colorado.

Dams, detention ponds and even debris basins meant to trap sediment while allowing water to flow freely in areas ravaged by wildfire could be subject to state water rights administration. That’s the opinion of officials at the Colorado Division of Water Resources.

“I think we’ve clearly articulated how we view the law and there are not any gaps from an administrative standpoint,” said State Engineer Dick Wolfe.

But districts formed to control stormwater are discussing whether state water law could block efforts to stem the worst effects of floods. And they’re looking at changing the law to give more weight to arguments to detain water.

The Urban Drainage and Flood Control District, which was formed to assist Denver metro area counties with stormwater protection, has asked the state to clarify its position on whether flood control would have priority in any instance. Meanwhile, the Fountain Creek Flood Control and Greenway District is preparing a series of conversations with water rights holders on the same topic.

“If we as a district are going to be successful, we have to become involved,” Executive Director Larry Small told the Fountain Creek board at its August meeting.

The state’s position is that detaining water in a regional project could injure junior water rights.

In 2011, the state explained that its policy of allowing 72-hour detention of floodwater applies only to single-site projects, rather than regional detention ponds, said Kevin Rein, deputy state engineer. The rule has often been invoked in flood control discussions and usually misinterpreted. The Fountain Creek district found out about this firsthand when it constructed a demonstration project along Fountain Creek in Pueblo behind the North Side Walmart. It was required to file a substitute water supply plan.

But there are no hard and fast rules governing flood detention.

“We do not find a legal basis to make an absolute finding that diversions of stormwater into regional water quality detention are allowable, nor do we find a basis to determine that such diversions would cause no injury,” Rein concluded in his letter to the Urban Drainage district.

Even the debris basins built by Colorado Springs after the Waldo Canyon Fire have the potential to run afoul of state water law, said Steve Witte, Division 2 engineer. “If they encounter groundwater, they have to be augmented with a SWSP,” Witte said. “If it’s in a normally dry stream, it may qualify as an erosion control dam, which if it holds less than 2 acre-feet of water is statutorily exempt.”

So far, the state has looked at about 30 of those structures in the Colorado Springs area.

Flood control is not impossible. One of the stated benefits of Pueblo Dam under the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project is to provide protection from floods. The operating rules of the dam allow holding back water if the Arkansas River is above 6,000 cubic feet per second at the Avondale gauge — a level that satisfies most water rights downstream.

However, Fountain Creek officials know they could have a tough time trying to unravel the water rights questions that will accompany any dam or detention pond project.

“It’s going to be a tough fight, but the best way is to confront it,” said Pueblo County Commissioner Terry Hart. “We have to put an effort together to try to negotiate it up front. The only way to identify the issues is to speak to those who might be hurt downstream.”

More stormwater coverage here.


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