On June 16, nearly 50 years to the date from its biggest wallop, Fountain Creek jarred Pueblo’s collective memory of just how destructive it can be.
The flood of 1965, which built in intensity from June 14-17, was the largest recorded storm event on Fountain Creek, although it ranks second to the 1921 Arkansas River flood in terms of the destruction it caused. While the response to the Arkansas River flood was almost immediate — levees and a barrier dam were complete within five years — relief for Fountain Creek languished for 24 years, until an $8.6 million levee system was completed in 1989. Even then, it was a half-measure. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1970 said the best protection from Fountain Creek for Pueblo would be a dam.
But then, Fountain Creek returned to its typical state — a meandering trickle in a sandy bed, largely hidden from view by a forest of vegetation. The city of Pueblo slowly removed development from the major flood plain. There were occasional alerts, but Fountain Creek behaved and stayed within its banks.
Until 1999, when a moderate flood nearly took out Pueblo’s Target store and conversations began about how much worse large-scale development in Colorado Springs would make the next flood on Fountain Creek.
Part of the answer to that question arrived this year, when six weeks of wet weather softened the banks and the river — after all, that’s what it became — punch through places it shouldn’t have. Things happen slowly on Fountain Creek, and the call for a dam hasn’t washed away.
Many Puebloans still remember driving over to Fountain Creek to view the roaring water 50 years ago. The Pueblo Chieftain reported that thousands flocked to high ground east of the “Fountain River” to view the flood. Pueblo police reported traffic problems, but were more concerned about people who did not realize they were in danger zones.
Precipitation was widespread, with heavy rainfall of up to 16 inches over the four days in both the South Platte and Arkansas River basins. No place in the eastern half of the state escaped. Pueblo, Lamar and Trinidad were all in the path of the storms. Up north, Denver, Greeley and Sterling all felt the effects of torrential rains.
Danger accompanied the drama, with 21 deaths statewide attributed to the 1965 floods, most by drowning.
Three who died were from Pueblo, including James Oznowitz, 22, a recent graduate of then-Southern Colorado State College and intern for The Chieftain, whose sports car plunged into Plum Creek between Monument and Castle Rock; Ralph Cooper, 40, whose truck was swept into Plum Creek as well; and Robert V. Reutter, 15, who was electrocuted while he helped clean a flooded feed yard on South La Crosse Avenue a few days after the flood.
Statewide, more than 2,500 homes were destroyed and 250,000 acres of farmland were inundated. The total damage was estimated to be more than $500 million.
Controversy on Fountain Creek, particularly the tension between Pueblo and El Paso counties, never really went away.
A plan to build a dam north of Pueblo failed in the early 1970s because of a lack of funding. The idea was never supported by Colorado Springs, whose officials said there could never be enough water to fill a recreational pool that was part of the benefits package.
Part of the planning for the dam included a commitment by the city of Pueblo to the Army Corps of Engineers to maintain the channel, first negotiated less than a month after the flood in exchange for levee repairs, renewed in 1969 when promise for a dam remained alive and continued forward when new levees were completed in 1989.
A water quality controversy began in the late 1970s and continues to this day. Repeated spills into Fountain Creek from Colorado Springs Utilities sewage treatment plants from 19992005 resulted in state penalties, remedial action and federal lawsuits. Steps to assure water quality were written into the federal contract for the Southern Delivery System in 2010, based on the environmental impact study.
Colorado Springs committed to spending $75 million to fortify its wastewater treatment system to prevent Fountain Creek spills in its 2009 1041 permit for SDS with Pueblo County.
The levee system on Fountain Creek took nearly the entire decade of the 1980s to complete. After it became clear that a dam would not be funded, the levees became Pueblo’s main push for congressional funding. Finally, in 1988 funding was approved.
Not ‘flood proof’
Local officials deemed Pueblo “flood proof” at the 1989 dedication, but by 2006, sedimentation from Fountain Creek flows that had increased fourfold since the 1960s threatened the effectiveness of the levees.
Subsequently, Colorado Springs agreed to dredge the Fountain Creek channel in Pueblo as part of its 1041 commitments for SDS, but later paid Pueblo County $2.2 million instead, at the request of the city of Pueblo, which sought the funds at the time to remove an obstructive railroad bridge.
Politically, the 1999 flood on Fountain Creek brought El Paso, Pueblo and Teller counties together to fix problems on Fountain Creek. Technical meetings continued through 2005, when most of the public officials who created the effort were not fully engaged.
That effort led to the Army Corps’ Fountain Creek Watershed Plan, which set priorities for projects on Fountain Creek. A dam got low scores, in favor of wetlands and bank stabilization projects, many of which proved ineffective in the 2015 flooding.
After a year of tension, the Fountain Creek Vision Task Force was formed in 2006, with Pueblo and El Paso county and municipal officials, along with private landowners.
At the same time, the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District and Colorado Springs collaborated on creating a Fountain Creek Corridor Master Plan, which recommended smaller detentions up and down Fountain Creek.
In 2007, then-U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., introduced the Fountain Creek Crown Jewel Project, which culminated in the introduction of legislation that would include multipurpose dams on Fountain Creek. The legislation failed to advance.
Finally, in 2009, the Colorado Legislature created the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District to fix Fountain Creek. The district is now studying how to protect downstream water rights if a dam or flood detention ponds are built. The district delayed its deliberations on developing property tax funding until El Paso County was able to have a vote on regional stormwater funding in 2014. The vote failed.
Subsequently, Colorado Springs officials have tried to assure Pueblo funding for stormwater control will be secured annually, even though its city council eliminated a stormwater fee in 2009.
The only source of major funding for flood control on the horizon is $50 million paid to the Fountain Creek district over five years once SDS begins delivering water in 2016. The district hopes to use that to leverage other money, but still must complete studies on the best method and location for dams, as well as deal with water rights issues.
After the most recent round of damaging floods, Pueblo and El Paso counties are seeking federal relief to the tune of $15 million, most of that in El Paso County.
Sources for this story included Chieftain archives, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reports and U.S. Geological Survey data.
Here is a list of the most intense floods in Pueblo on Fountain Creek:
June 17, 1965: 53 city blocks were inundated with water up to 8 feet deep, damaging 370 homes and 59 businesses. Damage estimated at $3.7 million. Peak flow of the flood was estimated at 47,000 cubic feet per second.
June 11, 1864: Flow of 45,000 cfs. Waters rose 20-30 feet, sweeping away Colorado City.
May 30, 1894: Flow of 40,000 cfs. Five lives lost and $2 million in property damage.
May 30, 1935: Flow of 35,000 cfs. Damages in Colorado Springs were $1.8 million, and four people died. In Pueblo, damages were $500,000.
June 3-4, 1921: Fountain Creek’s flows were 34,000 cfs, adding to the worst flood in Pueblo history on the Arkansas River, where flows were 110,000 cfs. After the flood, 78 bodies were recovered. More than 500 homes and 100 commercial buildings were destroyed. Damage was more than $10 million.
April 30, 1999: Peak flow of 18,900 cfs. A highway bridge at Pinon was swept away by the waters. Pueblo’s Target store was threatened. Damages in Pueblo and El Paso County totaled more than $30 million. Extensive damage in North La Junta as well. By comparison, the most recent flood on Fountain Creek peaked at 13,800 cfs in Pueblo on June 16.
Note: Damage amounts listed at the time of floods, not adjusted for current values.