More clouds over stormwater — The Pueblo Chieftain

Channel erosion Colorado Springs July 2012 via The Pueblo Chieftain
Channel erosion Colorado Springs July 2012 via The Pueblo Chieftain

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Colorado Springs is facing another federal lawsuit over stormwater violations, this time from the federal government.

The Environmental Protection Agency is considering litigation over violation of the city’s federal permit for discharging storm sewer water into Fountain Creek.

An inspection of the city’s stormwater system Aug. 18-19 found failure to meet standards or perform remediation of problems identified in a state audit in February 2013.

“I have to look at the report, but I think this highlights what we have been saying for years,” said Jay Winner, general manager of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District. “Colorado Springs has failed to meet its obligations and continues to dump on Pueblo and its other downstream neighbors.”

The Lower Ark district has its own federal lawsuit ready to go, but is holding it back as it waits to see if the city’s new leadership follows through on a commitment to fund stormwater at $19 million per year.
Colorado Springs City Council in 2009 voted to dissolve its stormwater enterprise, after it had been listed as a building block for approval of the Southern Delivery System in permits with the Bureau of Reclamation and Pueblo County.

The move was first protested in early 2010 by state Rep. Sal Pace, now a Pueblo County commissioner, to the Bureau of Reclamation, Corps of Engineers and EPA. All three agencies indicated at the time Colorado Springs was in compliance with SDS conditions.

In early 2012, Colorado Springs’ city attorney informed then-Mayor Steve Bach and City Council that they were obligated to fund stormwater projects as a part of the SDS approval. That resulted in a stormwater task force that failed to gain voter approval for a regional drainage authority.

Also in 2012, the Lower Ark began talking with Reclamation about stormwater commitments Colorado Springs made in order to obtain approval for SDS.

“It was very disappointing that the Bureau of Reclamation did not step in at that time,” Winner said. “We went to Washington to talk to (Interior Secretary) Ken Salazar and Ann Castle (assistant secretary for water and science) and got nowhere.”

After failing to interest either the Pueblo City Council or Pueblo County commissioners in pursuing the issue in 2012, the Lower Ark’s legal staff began working on a federal lawsuit, embarking on a detailed analysis of how stormwater protection was failing. The lawsuit first targeted Reclamation, but later shifted to naming the city of Colorado Springs as the potential defendant, based on violations similar to those cited by the EPA in August.

“I think this action by the EPA shows that it is not just our district that thinks Colorado Springs has not measured up,” Winner said.

Under Bach, Colorado Springs’ interest in stormwater protection centered on dealing with damage from the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires, which combined claimed 832 homes and scarred more than 32,000 acres.
But Bach actively opposed the regional drainage district.

Former Colorado Attorney General John Suthers was elected Colorado Springs mayor in May, and immediately pledged to work for $19 million in annual stormwater funding, a move fully endorsed by Colorado Springs City Council.

“I think the new leadership in Colorado Springs is addressing the problem, and the voters endorsed the mayor’s and council’s plan in the last election,” said Steve Nawrocki, president of Pueblo City Council. He said more meetings on the stormwater issue should occur early next year. Nawrocki also acknowledged that pressure from the Lower Ark district helped press the issue.

“I think it helped by making the new leadership (in Colorado Springs) more proactive.”
Pueblo County is in negotiations with Colorado Springs over its 1041 permit for SDS, and is unsure of the impact potential litigation with the EPA would cause.

Colorado Springs notified the county of the impending lawsuit Monday and commissioners expect to discuss it at today’s meeting “It sounds like it vindicates us for what we in Pueblo have been alleging for more than a decade,” said Commissioner Terry Hart.

Suthers was quoted in Tuesday’s edition of The Gazette as saying: “We would rather spend money trying to solve the problem. We’re hoping both Pueblo and the EPA have some realization that we have a council and mayor that realize you can’t kick the can down the road any farther.”

Construction resumes on Fountain Creek through Pueblo

Fountain Creek Watershed
Fountain Creek Watershed

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Work is resuming on a dangerous portion of Fountain Creek through Pueblo.

The Army Corps of Engineers is overseeing a $750,000 project to install articulated concrete blocks — held together by cable in a mat and anchored to the ground — along the Fountain Creek bank near the 13th Street Exit on Interstate 25.

Work should be complete within three months and Pueblo contractor Pate Construction is doing the work while flows are low.

The project started in April, but was interrupted by heavy rains in May and June that increased flows on the Fountain to well above normal for more than six weeks. Waters only recently receded to the point where workers could get in the channel.

Fountain Creek will be temporarily rechanneled to the east of the area while work is underway, said Jeff Bailey, assistant city manager for stormwater.

The area had been secured by a gabion — wire-wrapped rock — which washed out during the September 2013 flood on Fountain Creek.

Fountain Creek hits the bank at a right angle at 13th Street, threatening railroad tracks and roadways in the area. While the Corps is responsible for the work and funds it, the city is the sponsoring agency and coordinates such things as local permits and access, Bailey explained.

There are several other projects still in the planning stages to repair damage from this spring’s flooding, Bailey said.

The city will be removing the debris such as large trees that were deposited at the Eighth Street bridge in the near future. “We need to get that clear so the water doesn’t start undermining the supports,” Bailey said.

The city is also working on restoring trails and repairing the berm at the flood detention pond behind the North Side Walmart.

Meanwhile, the Colorado Department of Transportation is working on projects to repair the Colorado 47 bridge and the trail in that immediate area, as well as clearing debris at the East Fourth Street bridge.

Colorado Springs faces possible action from the EPA over stormwater permit violations

Fountain Creek erosion via The Pueblo Chieftain
Fountain Creek erosion via The Pueblo Chieftain

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Billie Stanton Anleu):

Colorado Springs repeatedly has violated its water quality permit and now faces a potential federal lawsuit, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has warned the city.

The EPA inspected 14 sections of the city’s stormwater system Aug. 18-19 and found “continuous failure” to meet standards or remediate problems highlighted in a state audit conducted Feb. 4-7, 2013.

Problems cited include inadequate funding, infrastructure problems, insufficient inspections, “not holding developers’ feet to the fire,” a lack of internal controls and too many waivers, Mayor John Suthers said Monday.

The city’s federal MS4 permit (for Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System) requires adherence to water quality standards. While drinking water is not at issue in this report, Suthers said, heavy sedimentation and other problems were reviewed in detail.

No city official denies the long-term neglect. But the irony is rich.

Since he took office six months ago, Suthers repeatedly has vowed that $19 million a year will be spent on stormwater improvements. That has the City Council’s full support, and $16 million for stormwater has been carved out of the mayor’s proposed 2016 budget, with $3 million to come from Colorado Springs Utilities.

So the city finally is poised to address a problem that has been worsening since at least 2008. The recession kicked in that year, and the city’s Stormwater Enterprise Fund was dismantled a year later, “a bad, bad combination,” Suthers noted.

Voters in 2009 backed Issue 300, a measure weakening the city’s use of enterprise funds. In response, City Council eliminated the stormwater fund. It had six inspectors at the time; today the staff has about three.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. The Waldo Canyon Fire struck in 2012, and the burn scar contributed to widespread flooding in 2013 that exacerbated already severe problems with Fountain Creek, Monument Creek and other tributaries.

Tim Mitros, until recently the city’s Stormwater Division manager, has been widely lauded for his response to those disasters and for his diligence on stormwater issues.

Homeowners cited his vigilance and daily visits in May, when record-breaking rainfall led to landslides that endangered two Rockrimmon houses. He also oversaw updates last year to the city’s antiquated, two-volume Drainage Criteria Manual for developers.

Now the city is advertising for a new stormwater manager. Why? “I don’t know. You’ll have to talk to Travis Easton,” Mitros said.

“We’ll be introducing accountability where it wasn’t before,” said Easton, who became Public Works director in August 2014. “We recognized long before this report came out that we had issues to address.”

Said Suthers, “We need to up our game in stormwater, and that’s what’s going on there.”

But he also noted: “If you really dig deep (in the report), the problem of inadequate manpower doing inspections” is evident.

The city has retained Broomfield-based MWH Global consulting engineers to review the EPA report and “propose how to move forward to settle this,” Suthers said.

The EPA encourages settlement discussions but says any settlement must be done through a consent decree by U.S. District Court with a schedule for injunctive relief and payment of an appropriate civil penalty.

In January, city officials will meet to negotiate with representatives of the EPA, U.S. Department of Justice and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. (EPA and CDPHE officials working on the issue referred calls to their communications staff representatives, who did not return requests for comment.)

Suthers said the city hopes to obtain a waiver on penalties and avoid litigation.

The city has been negotiating for months with Pueblo County, which has threatened legal action, too, over the severe problems downstream users have experienced because of Colorado Springs’ inadequately controlled stormwater.

At risk is the 1041 permit that the county issued to city-owned Colorado Springs Utilities for its Southern Delivery System, a massive water project set to deliver up to 50 million gallons a day of Arkansas River water to Colorado Springs, Fountain, Security and Pueblo West.

Without the permit, CSU can’t turn on the tap for SDS.

But downstream users have incentive to let the project begin: $10 million a year for five years that the system will pay to the Fountain Creek Watershed, Flood Control and Greenway District to build even more stormwater projects.

Instead of lawsuits and penalties, Suthers said, “We would rather spend money trying to solve the problem. We’re hoping both Pueblo and the EPA have some realization that we have a council and mayor that realize you can’t kick the can down the road any farther.”

Pueblo Water renews pact with Colorado Springs — The Pueblo Chieftain

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

The Pueblo Board of Water Works Tuesday agreed to renew a 25-year agreement with Colorado Springs Utilities to work together on water issues of mutual concern or benefit.

The agreement was first drafted in 1990 and renewed for another 25 years on Tuesday.

“In 1990, we executed an agreement with Colorado Springs on exchanges and storage space,” said Terry Book, executive director of Pueblo Water. “The new agreement eliminates some provisions that no longer apply or weren’t as straightforward as we thought.”

“How much water is involved?” asked board member Jim Gardner.

“It’s the spirit of the agreement,” replied Alan Ward, water resources manager. “It says (things such as) we’ll share storage when it’s available, but it doesn’t say how much.”

Among provisions of the agreement:

  • The right to use each other’s reservoir space if it is available.
  • Contract exchanges, which allow water to be traded between reservoirs.
  • Cooperation to maximize opportunities for exchange and reuse of water.
  • Right of first refusal for long-term contracts of exchange opportunity by either party.
  • The agreement grew out of legal cases during the 1980s which set priorities among Pueblo Water, Colorado Springs Utilities and Aurora Water for exchanging water into Lake Pueblo. Pueblo has the first priority for exchanges.

    All three entities use exchanges to maximize water rights that either bring water into the basin from the Colorado River system or, in Aurora’s case, take it out of the Arkansas River system.

    The new agreement incorporates more recent changes, including:

  • Intergovernmental agreements in 2004 that establish Arkansas River flow regimes through Pueblo.
  • A recovery of yield program associated with those agreements.
  • A 2009 low flow program that was adopted as part of Utilities’ Southern Delivery System and Pueblo Water’s purchase of Bessemer ditch shares.
  • Pueblo Dam
    Pueblo Dam

    Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District board approves 2016 budget

    Fryingpan-Arkansas Project via the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District
    Fryingpan-Arkansas Project via the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District

    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

    A $22.5 million budget was reviewed Thursday by the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District board.

    The board will meet at 11 a.m. Dec. 3 to give final approval to the budget.

    Most of the budget, about $12.3 million, goes toward repaying the federal government for construction of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project. Of that, $5.3 million repays the Fountain Valley Conduit through an assessment only on the portion of the district in El Paso County, according to a presentation by Leann Noga, finance coordinator.

    Districtwide, a 0.9 mill levy will collect about $7 million to repay the Fry-Ark debt. The rate will not change.

    A total operating budget of $4 million is projected, funded by a 0.035 mill levy, specific ownership tax, enterprise contract revenues and grants.

    The district’s primary projects in the coming year will be continued work on the Arkansas Valley Conduit, negotiating a federal contract for an excess capacity master contract to store water in Lake Pueblo and adding hydropower to the North Outlet Works at Pueblo Dam.

    The hydropower project is a joint venture with Colorado Springs Utilities and Pueblo Water and is expected to total $5.2 million, but the cost is reflected in the Southeastern district budget since it is the lead agency.

    Snowpack news: Good start to the water year

    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

    Although it’s way too early to make a prediction, the water year so far is shaping up better than last year.

    “We’re in much better shape than we were at this time last year,” Alan Ward, water resources manager for Pueblo Water, said Tuesday.

    All the indicators are good — maybe too good if there is such a thing when it comes to water supply.

    Snowpack, boosted again by a storm this week, is above average in both the Arkansas and Colorado river basins.

    Pueblo is storing nearly 50,000 acre-feet of water (16.3 billion gallons) in four reservoirs (Lake Pueblo, Clear Creek, Turquoise and Twin Lakes).

    “We have more than we’d like at Twin Lakes, but we’re waiting to see how likely a spill (at Lake Pueblo next spring) will be before we move it down,” Ward said.

    Lake Pueblo began storing winter water Sunday and is likely to reach capacity in April, when water above a certain level has to be evacuated to make room for flood control.

    That depends, however, on whether conditions stay wet over the next few months. The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center shows it is likely that conditions will be wetter than average through next May.

    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

    Lake Pueblo is likely to fill to the brim and some water stored there released to make room for flooding next spring.

    The prognosis came Thursday at the meeting of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District.

    “The bad news is the (Army) Corps (of Engineers) will not provide deviation this year,” said Jim Broderick, executive director of the Southeastern district. “The good news is they would be glad to take an informal look at our requests.”

    The Corps has granted a deviation from a regimen that requires a certain level in Lake Pueblo by April 15, allowing water to remain in the reservoir until May 1, when flows increase and calls for water typically increase.

    By that time, the reservoir is usually swollen from winter water storage and more water from upstream reservoirs that has been moved by the Bureau of Reclamation or other users.

    Going into the winter, Lake Pueblo is at 138 percent of average, storing about 185,000 acre-feet of water. If average amounts of water are moved in over the winter, almost 20,000 acre-feet of water stored in Lake Pueblo by then could “spill,” or be released early.

    One of the ideas Broderick mentioned was to use a sliding pool, based on the likelihood of flooding, that would allow for additional storage later in the season.

    Opening the concept up formally could have the drawback of the need for an environmental impact statement that potentially could result in an even more restrictive storage regime.

    This year resulted in nearly record flows on the Arkansas River, said Bill Banks, new chief of the U.S. Geological Survey in Pueblo. Nearly 1 million acre-feet of water flowed past the gauge at Avondale this year, which is at the top of the range over the past 40 years and nearly twice the typical year.

    The Corps has granted deviation in storage criteria in recent years, partly for repairs and construction on the Arkansas River levee. That would not be needed this year.

    Last spring’s high flows resulted in filling some of the flood-control capacity in Lake Pueblo.

    Conservation easements: The best way to protect Southern Colorado’s land and water from being dried up by urban development — The Pueblo Chieftain

    Saguache Creek

    From The Pueblo Chieftain editorial staff:

    THE BEST way to protect Southern Colorado’s land and water from being dried up by urban development is the strategic use of conservation easements to preserve both environmental quality and the local economy.

    Conservation groups already are investing wisely in preserving the environment, land and water in the San Luis Valley.

    In the early years of this century, the Nature Conservancy, a national conservation group, supplied the impetus to permanently protect the Baca Ranch from greedy water speculators by jump-starting the $30 million purchase of the ranch. Congress followed by establishing the nearby Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, thus preserving the valley’s great natural asset forever.

    Other large ranches in the San Luis Valley are being protected by similar conservation efforts.

    On Nov. 3, the Del Norte-based Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust, Colorado Open Lands and the Western Rivers Conservancy announced creation of a $2 million San Luis Valley Conservation Fund. The goal is to take care of the land and water, as well as fish and wildlife habitat along the Rio Grande, through the valley.

    Conservation will have a positive lasting effect on the San Luis Valley.

    Now conservation groups need to cast their eyes east and north to the Lower Arkansas Valley. This agricultural region is living proof that farmers have been the first human contributors to conserving land and water of irreplaceable value to the economy, food production and natural wildlife habitat.

    We appreciate the Palmer Land Trust’s promising plan that, in the trust’s own words, “focuses on a 1.75-million acre landscape in the western Lower Arkansas Valley. Delineated by the Arkansas River and its southern tributaries, the planning area extends from Canon City in the west to Rocky Ford in the east, and from the city of Pueblo in the north to Colorado City in the south.”

    The Lower Arkansas Valley looks to Palmer Land Trust success and also needs others, such as the Nature Conservancy and Colorado Cattlemen’s Trust, to add their considerable weight to more extensive conservation easements.

    Remember, farming and ranching are the most time-tested contributors to conservation of the environment — wildlife habitat, recreation and scenic vistas — that draw people to the beautiful state of Colorado.

    The advantages of conservation easements are numerous, extending to farmers and ranchers, especially. They can receive outside income to commit to staying on the land in irrigated agriculture in perpetuity. It’s a great disincentive to settling for a one-time payoff from selling their permanent water rights to be transferred north to urban areas.

    Conservation easements are a win-win proposition. Now we need the conservation experts to pitch in and help save the future of the Lower Arkansas Valley.