City looks to address stormwater drainage issues

Filed under: Opinion |

Our region has been suffering a drought for the past several years. But as we saw with recent storms this summer, the pendulum always swings back.
Drought and flooding may seem like opposite ends of the spectrum. But the reality is that with our constantly changing weather patterns, our community needs to be prepared for both extremes.
Flooding is not uncommon in our region’s history:
•In 1935, the region was in the grip of the Dust Bowl drought. Then it started to rain. On Memorial Day 1935, flooding killed 18 people and washed away a large part of Monument Valley Park. It was called a 100-year flood, but the next one came well before another 100 years had passed.
•Fifteen days of rain in June of 1965 flooded Monument and Fountain Creeks, washing out several bridges and part of the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.
•It doesn’t take huge amounts of rain to cause major problems. On June 18, 1993, three inches of rain in a matter of hours flooded basements and closed Interstate 25 at Bijou when a clogged drain backed up water to a depth of almost six feet.
•Flooding in April of 1999 caused millions of dollars of damage in the region. The damage included washed out bridges and roads, erosion, debris, flooded homes and broken sewer lines which sent as much as eight million gallons of raw sewage per day down Fountain Creek for more than a week. Highway 24 was closed for more than a month when rushing waters destabilized the pavement supporting a bridge just east of 21st Street.
The term “100-year flood” is misleading. It is not the flood that will occur once every 100 years – it’s not that predictable.
Rather, it is the flood elevation that has a 1 percent chance of being equaled or exceeded each year. Thus, the 100-year flood could occur more than once in a relatively short period of time.
The 100-year flood, which is the standard used by most federal and state agencies, is used by the National Flood Insurance Program as the standard for floodplain management and to determine the need for flood insurance. A structure located within a special flood hazard area shown on an NFIP map has a 26 percent chance of suffering flood damage during the term of a 30-year mortgage.
Equally as important as building infrastructure that can handle a 100-year flood event are those sections of town that suffer flood damage from the more frequent locally intense thunderstorms like we saw on June 21 of this year when more than 2.5 inches of rain fell in some parts of the city.
Floodplain identification started with the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the 1970s. There are many sections of town that were developed before that time with houses and businesses constructed adjacent to our drainage ways and within our now-designated 100-year floodplain.
The City of Colorado Springs maintains more than 800 miles of open and closed drainage channels which carry stormwater and runoff through the city to Monument and Fountain Creeks. Funding to maintain and improve these channels has been severely lacking as other priorities were addressed by the General Fund.
Stormwater management is becoming an increasing concern for City Council, city staff and Colorado Springs Utilities.
Public and private property is at considerable risk for infrastructure damage caused by both flash flooding and continual erosion in the streambeds. City staff estimates the current backlog of stormwater capital project needs to be $298 million.
Included in that list is $76.7 million in critical needs.
In addition to capital needs, funding is also needed for ongoing operations and maintenance and to meet the requirements for the federally-mandated permit which addresses water quality issues.
In recent years, less than $2 million has been available each budget year to address the most critical drainage needs, leaving much needed improvements on the waiting list to be addressed only in an emergency situation.
City Council has asked city and utilities staff to present a joint plan late this year for implementing a stormwater enterprise in our city. The city has been looking at a program and funding mechanism to address stormwater drainage needs since the early 1980s.
A resident task force has been convened to provide City Council with recommendations on how best to implement the enterprise and will also address related issues such as our drainage basin fee program.
Stormwater drainage is not an exciting topic, but it is one that is vitally important to the safety and welfare of our community. It is crucial that we put the systems into place that will protect both public and private property, especially with the millions of dollars being invested in existing and current infrastructure through the recent implementation of the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority.
It is equally important that we do everything in our power to protect the health and safety of our citizens as well as be responsible to our downstream neighbors.
Lorne Kramer is city manager of Colorado Springs.

For more information about the stormwater enterprise planning, visit the City Engineering section on and click on Stormwater.