Fountain Creek: Study recommends designing flood control structures to allow 10,000 cfs through Pueblo

Fountain Creek
Fountain Creek

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

There would be little impact on water rights if flood control structures on Fountain Creek were designed to allow 10,000 cubic feet per second of water to pass through Pueblo.

That’s the conclusion of a draft report by engineer Duane Helton commissioned by the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District, released this week.

The district is looking at the issue as part of its investigation into the feasibility of building either a large dam or series of detention ponds on Fountain Creek. A U.S. Geological Survey study shows those are the most effective way to stop high flows from inflicting more damage on the waterway through Pueblo.

A study for Pueblo County by Wright Water Engineering indicates those flows have been worsened by development in Colorado Springs for the past 35 years — from both more impervious surfaces and the introduction of imported water. About 363,000 tons of additional sediment each year are deposited between Colorado Springs and Pueblo.

Helton’s study, which is now under review by interested parties, indicates that water rights during extremely large floods would not be affected because water would be stored in John Martin Reservoir. That same situation occurred this year during six weeks of moderate, but prolonged flows on Fountain Creek.

“Although the owners of the ditches and reservoirs on the Arkansas River are appropriately concerned about the effects of the Fountain Creek flood remediation project on their diversions under the priority system, a conclusion from this analysis is that the operation of the Fountain Creek Flood Remediation Project will not have significant effects on the diversions into the ditches and reservoirs on the Arkansas River in at least some of the years,” Helton’s report states.

Helton analyzed data since 1921, with about 75 years of flow records for Fountain Creek. The records were unavailable for some years. There were 18 years where the peak flow exceeded 10,000 cfs.

He modeled floods in 1999 and 2011, concluding that about 5,291 acre-feet would have been impounded during the 1999 flood and 368 acre-feet in the 2011 event if flood control was managed for everything above 10,000 cfs. In the 1999 flood, there would have been little if any impact on downstream rights, since John Martin storage was active.
The report also concluded that a method could be developed to ensure downstream water users would get water they otherwise would have been entitled to receive.

Colorado Water Congress Annual Summer Conference recap

lowlakemead04112015viareuters
From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

People are “bored and frustrated” by what is going on in Washington, D.C., so U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet was very happy to be in the Colorado mountains Wednesday…

Although there is gridlock in the nation’s Capitol, Bennet has recently toured the state with his Republican counterpart Sen. Cory Gardner. Common ground most often has been found on water issues.

In his opening remarks, he noted that his first legislation was a bill to provide a funding mechanism for the Arkansas Valley Conduit, and among his most recent was creation of the Browns Canyon National Monument.

“We take water seriously in Colorado,” Bennet said. “We know that it is a limited resource that is fundamental to every aspect of our economy and our way of life.”

Bennet hit the key points that are driving Colorado to develop a water plan by December: agriculture, recreation, the environment and continued urban growth.

“Water sustains our agriculture industry.

It sustains the rivers, wildflowers and wildlife that bring in $13.2 billion in outdoor recreation spending every year. Water fuels the existence and growth of businesses throughout the state that have helped us build one of the strongest economies in the country,” Bennet said.

His message on this year’s ample rainfall was mixed.

“We are thankful for the rain we’ve had this year in Colorado. It’s helped our economy and decreased the threat of catastrophic wildfire,” he said. “But we know we are part of a much larger water system. We know that the Colorado River basin as a whole remains in a record drought.”

Lake Powell is just 53 percent full, and inflows will be about 88 percent of normal this year. Lake Mead is only 38 percent full.

“It’s incredible to think that the water level in Lake Mead has dropped by about the height of a 15-story building since 1983 over the surface of the lake. That’s about 18 million acre feet of water, potentially enough for 70 million families for a year,” Bennet said.

Bennet supports working with other states in the Upper Colorado River basin (New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) as the lower basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada) continue to rely more heavily on the Colorado River.

“We need to stay ahead of this continuing drought,” he said. “Colorado River security is not a west slope issue or an east slope issue — it’s a Colorado issue.”

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Fountain Creek isn’t the only area of the state where storm control and water rights have collided, the Colorado Water Congress learned Wednesday.

But it is unique in being the only area omitted from SB212, state legislation that allowed stormwater to be stored for up to 72 hours or 110 hours in an exceptional storm. That decision was applauded by some, but derided by one water attorney as “Monkey Business.”

As in the Marx Brothers classic movie.

Law-makers have overstepped their responsibility and subjected water law to “death by a thousand small cuts” by passing SB212 and HB1016, said Alan Curtis, a water lawyer with White and Jankowski.

Curtis lampooned the bills, along with failed legislation to allow rain barrels (SB1259) by showing video clips from “Monkey Business” — including Harpo’s antics in the crowded cruise ship cabin, jumping out of line in port and roiling the lemonade by splashing his legs in it. He ended by asking “which Marx Brother are you?” He declared he is Groucho and those who passed the legislation are more like Karl. Curtis’ point was that the new laws that passed, like the rain barrel bill that did not, jump some water rights ahead of others that have been in line for 150 years of water law, amounting to a taking of property rights. They also put the responsibility to prove damage on the party who is injured, which is the opposite of most water law, which requires proof of no injury or mitigation.

Engineer Jim Wulliman and Alan Searcy, of the Colorado Stormwater Council, argued that stormwater retention ponds are useful both to enhance water quality, by settling water, and to restore channel flows to pre-development conditions.

Wulliman detailed how paving urban surfaces sets up a scenario for damage to waterways as more water drains more quickly, causing erosion.

Finally, Steve Vandiver, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, said the state Legislature moved too fast to pass the stormwater bill, saying junior water rights holders could be injured.

“I’d just like to slow the process down,” Vandiver said. “The science is not exact.”

Fountain Creek has been struggling with the stormwater control/water rights issue for years. It was removed from SB212, with the exception of Colorado Springs, which has a stormwater discharge permit.
This year, a preliminary study by the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District attempted to quantify the damage at certain flows and suggested ways to mitigate the damage.
Pueblo County has hired Wright Water Engineers to quantify the damage caused by development in Colorado Springs to Fountain Creek.

“There’s a heavy mistrust of government” — State Senator Larry Crowder

Fountain Creek Watershed
Fountain Creek Watershed

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

A state lawmaker who voiced support for a dam on Fountain Creek after this spring’s flooding says downstream opposition has changed his course.

“A dam on Fountain Creek was, still is, a good idea. But when I went down there to talk to people about it, there was opposition from three counties and several groups of farmers,” state Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, said. “There’s a heavy mistrust of government.”

Crowder made waves in July when he voiced support for a flood-control dam on Fountain Creek in light of the constant erosion caused by heavy flooding in May and June.

On paper, having three dams in the Lower Arkansas Valley — Pueblo, John Martin and Fountain Creek — could allow for better water management to supply water to farmers, Crowder said Tuesday.

“I still believe having three dams would have extended water rights,” he said.

But commissioners in Otero, Prowers and Kiowa counties have voiced opposition, saying a dam on Fountain Creek would harm junior water rights.

Preliminary results from a study by the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District earlier this year show that damage would be relatively small and that slowing down water could actually prolong the time some junior rights are in priority.

“The way I see it, we are always playing defense,” Crowder said. “I thought a dam would be a good way to play But after several meetings and letters of opposition to a dam, Crowder said he is no longer interested in pushing for state support of a Fountain Creek dam. He was also dissuaded from supporting it by comments last week that made at a joint meeting of Pueblo and Colorado Springs city councils.

“It’s a quandary for me, but I have to go with what people in my district want,” Crowder said. “I can’t fight everybody.”

Castlewood Canyon Flood August 3, 1933 — Mark Afman

Click here to go to the History Colorado website for “Where were you when the dam broke?”: Castlewood Canyon Booklet Collects Flood of Memories. Here’s an excerpt:

On the evening of August 3, 1933, Elsie Henderson’s urgent voice raced down the Sullivan Telephone Exchange’s wires, outpacing Cherry Creek’s northbound floodwaters. Notified by a Douglas County sheriff that Castlewood Dam had burst and that everything along the stream’s path from Franktown to Denver was in danger, the operator told farmers and ranchers to gather their families and head for higher ground.

At that time, rural telephone customers often shared single wires called “party lines.” The telephone company assigned phone numbers made up of unique ring patterns to each customer (for example, one short ring followed by two long rings). Elsie, one of only two people available to operate the Sullivan switchboard that night, alerted people with one long ring, the universally recognized sound for an emergency. She and fellow Sullivan Exchange employee Ingrid Mosher worked through the night and into the following afternoon, saving lives, livestock, and property. Though five thousand fled the lowlands, only two people died in one of the worst floods in Colorado history.

In time, Elsie’s deeds might have been washed downriver and forgotten. The story survives thanks to George Madsen, a friend who took the time to answer a 1994 letter from Castlewood Canyon State Park staff requesting personal reminiscences about the flood. Madsen, a former telephone company employee, wrote down his own memories, along with the stories told to him by Elsie and Ingrid years earlier. Dozens of other Coloradans answered the call too, typing their recollections on legal-sized sheets of paper headed by the question, “Where Were You When the Dam Broke?” In 1997 Castlewood Canyon State Park staff members assembled these memories into a compelling book called, The Night the Dam Gave Way: A Diary of Personal Accounts.

More Cherry Creek watershed coverage here.

Colorado Springs City Council okays funds for Fountain Creek District

Colorado Springs circa 1910 via GhostDepot.com
Colorado Springs circa 1910 via GhostDepot.com

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Billie Stanton Anleu):

A City Council resolution approved Tuesday lets Mayor John Suthers start funneling city money to the Fountain Creek Watershed, Flood Control and Greenway District.

“It’s a big deal,” says district Executive Director Larry Small.

It’s a big deal because farmers and ranchers along Fountain Creek lose farmland with every storm. The Air Force Academy is being inundated, too.

Without stormwater mitigation upstream, a 100-year storm could overtop east Pueblo levees and flood neighborhoods there.

Downstream, the Arkansas Valley suffers when Fountain Creek flows too high, such as the 20,000 cubic feet per second it reached on June 15, and Pueblo Reservoir stops releasing water. Then Fountain Creek gushes into the Arkansas River.

Colorado Springs is the watershed’s biggest city with the most impervious area.

“So it generates a huge amount of runoff,” Small said. “Then when you have fire in Black Forest and Waldo Canyon – a two-year storm in that area is equivalent to a 100-year storm – it’s just creating huge flows in that creek.”[…]

The City of Colorado Springs will provide $150,000 toward creating a flood restoration master plan for Monument Creek, the third and last tributary in the watershed without such a plan.

Cheyenne and Upper Fountain creeks’ plans are done. But Monument Creek is the biggest part of the Fountain Creek Watershed and has the most tributaries.

Its plan, like the others, will prioritize projects, identify conceptual designs and estimate budgets.

“The next step will be finding a way to implement those projects and getting funding for those projects,” Small said.

That work is expected to restore the watershed after 2013 floods associated with the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires, as well as the May rains and high flows on June 15.

The flood district has built a coalition of El Paso and Teller counties, multiple cities, the Coalition for the Upper South Platte, Colorado Springs Utilities and the Air Force Academy, all working to obtain state grants to remedy the fire- and flood-caused damage.

In addition to the $150,000 Colorado Springs now can provide to match a $300,000 state grant, for example, the Monument Creek restoration plan will get $50,000 each from El Paso County, the Air Force Academy and Colorado Springs Utilities.

“I hope the relationships are going to get better between Pueblo and Colorado Springs with the initiatives John Suthers has proposed,” Small said.

That appears to be happening already. Pueblo threatened to sue Colorado Springs but rescinded that threat after repeated visits by the mayor and Council President Merv Bennett.

“We’re in negotiations with Pueblo County commissioners as to putting together an intergovernmental agreement that puts some teeth into this so they have confidence we’ll follow through with it,” he said.

Suthers has vowed that $19 million a year will be spent on stormwater problems: $8 million from retiring bonds in the Springs Community Improvement Program, $3 million from Colorado Springs Utilities and $8 million he says he’ll squeeze out of city coffers.

“The problem is, as you’ve seen, there’s about $500 million of need. So $20 million a year – you can do the math and see how many years it would take,” Small said.

Colorado Springs Utilities agreed in 2009 to spend $50 million on waterway improvement projects, $75 million to upgrade its own wastewater or water-reuse systems and $2 million to dredge the creek at Pueblo’s levees.

Those promises were made in conjunction with getting a 1041 permit from Pueblo County to build the Southern Delivery System to pump water from Pueblo Reservoir to residents of Colorado Springs, Fountain, Security and Pueblo West.

The $50 million comes when SDS starts operating in 2016. But $50 million “is just a drop in the bucket for taking care of the corridor from Colorado Springs to the Arkansas.”

Nonetheless, said Councilman Don Knight, “Any progress is a move in the right direction. … We’re all moving in the same direction. We don’t have a stormwater task force and mayor with different solutions. We realize we have to come together with one solution.”

More Fountain Creek coverage here.

The Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District meeting recap

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

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

It may be time to pass the hat again for the district trying to fix Fountain Creek.

The Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District Friday looked again at a dismal funding picture or a model for government austerity, depending on point of view.

The discussion came up as Cole Emmons, El Paso County’s assistant attorney, reviewed the formation and operation of the district for new board members. One key point was the district’s reliance on member governments to get things done. For example, Emmons’ time are legal fees donated by El Paso County.

But even in this administrative barter system, real cash is sometimes needed.

In 2013, a plan to collect $50,000 by Executive Director Larry Small worked fairly well. The largest members of the district — El Paso and Pueblo counties, Colorado Springs and Pueblo — each contributed $10,000. Fountain, a mid-sized city, chipped in $5,000. Four smaller incorporated communities in El Paso County contributed $1,400 of the $5,000 expected from them.

Prior to that, the district had been on life support under a master corridor agreement jointly funded by Colorado Springs and the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District.

“These are anemic funds for the work we have to do,” Pueblo County Commissioner Terry Hart said.

The district is waiting for $50 million from Colorado Springs Utilities to begin arriving once the Southern Delivery System is turned on. But Hart pointed out that money is required to be spent on flood control projects that exclusively benefit Pueblo County.

“The real focus is taking on projects that are larger than the $50 million can fund,” Hart said. “We are in the sixth year, and we are doing the best we can. Sometimes we discount the work we’ve done. It’s been spectacular.”

The district has channeled $1.5 million in grants into Fountain Creek projects in the past two years, as well as cooperating with its members to line up other projects since being formed in 2009. But it has backed off its role in commenting on land-use decisions because it lacks qualified staff to review applications, Small said.

In its first year, the district held hearings on projects that could impact the flood plain of Fountain Creek. Small now reviews applications filed in either county, although most come from El Paso County.
The district could do more.

It has the authority to levy up to 5 mills in property taxes on all residents in El Paso and Pueblo counties, if voters approve the tax. Discussions on a strategy to obtain approval were shelved in 2012 as El Paso County moved toward an unsuccessful attempt to form a regional stormwater authority last year.

“At the last two meetings, we got an earful from landowners on Fountain Creek,” Hart said. “I’d like to take a realistic look at what we should be doing.”

More Fountain Creek coverage here.

“There is not consistent political leadership in Colorado Springs” — Jay Winner

Fountain Creek Watershed
Fountain Creek Watershed

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

In order to ensure stormwater control in Colorado Springs in the future, Colorado Springs Utilities needs to take over the job, or the city will face further legal action over the issue.

“Everything’s in place to do this,” said Jay Winner, general manager of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District. “If this were an enterprise of Utilities, the work would be brought up to speed immediately.” Utilities controls water, sewer, gas and electricity in Colorado Springs.

Winner is suggesting adding stormwater as a fifth utility. The idea has been discussed, but has not had a champion until now.

Attorneys for the Lower Ark are wrapping up the final draft for a federal district court complaint over alleged violations of the Clean Water Act by Colorado Springs. The lawsuit has been contemplated for two years, based on Colorado Springs’ inability to find a permanent stormwater funding source. A filing is expected within 60 days.

Making stormwater a fixture within Utilities might be a way of avoiding the lawsuit, Winner said.
Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers and City Council President Merv Bennett on July 6 gave assurances to Pueblo City Council that the city would find ways to fund $18 million in stormwater control activities annually from its general fund.

Winner, who attended that meeting, was not convinced.

“They’re constantly telling us how they are doing these wonderful things,” Winner said. “But their political leaders can be recalled or choose not to run again. There is not consistent political leadership in Colorado Springs. One of the things Utilities is good at is leadership.”

Bennett also has made appeals to the Lower Ark board to hold off on the lawsuit while Colorado Springs gets its house in order. But Winner said there are no actions to back up the rhetoric.

“Merv Bennett turned it over to Colorado Springs staff. I’ve had no meaningful conversations with them in the last six months,” Winner said.

Colorado Springs voters last November turned down a regional stormwater fee concept that sprung from two years of political meetings in El Paso County.

Colorado Springs City Council eliminated its stormwater fee following a 2009 vote on a proposal launched by Doug Bruce, a tax activist who became an El Paso County commissioner and state lawmaker before he was convicted for tax evasion.

Funds totaling about $29.6 million for six Colorado Springs enterprises, and transfers from Utilities to the general fund, were to be phased out over eight years under Issue 300 on the 2009 Colorado Springs ballot. Before the election, council members had talked about making about $3.7 million in cuts annually until the total was reached. After the election, council has opted only to eliminate the stormwater enterprise, which would have generated about $15.4 million in 2010.

“Springs City Council made the wrong decision,” Winner said. “If there’s one thing that Utilities knows how to do, it’s make good decisions.

They would not have made that decision to eliminate the stormwater enterprise.”

Council in August 2010 made the determination that Colorado Springs could keep “surplus payments” from Utilities without violating Issue 300. Those payments have totaled more than $30 million annually since that time, according to a 2014 bond rating statement filed by Utilities.

“Seems like there would already be some funding available for stormwater,” Winner said. “Plus, Utilities has the engineering, equipment and experience to do the sorts of projects that need to be done.”

While council oversees Utilities, future members would be less likely to arbitrarily end stormwater funding, any more than they would remove water, sewer, gas or electric service, he added.

More Fountain Creek coverage here and here.