Growing up in the Lower Arkansas Valley in the 1930s, I witnessed the most severe drought ever recorded in Southeastern Colorado and saw first-hand the horrific Dust Bowl weather conditions.
Virtual avalanches of dirt moved relentlessly through my hometown of Las Animas. Fierce winds picked up tons of topsoil, tumbleweeds, trash, parts of building materials, whirling all in a frightening wall of dirt and debris some 2,000 to 3,000 feet high.
Hundreds of people lost their jobs. While laboring valiantly to raise a crop without adequate water, farmers found market prices so low that it wouldn’t even pay to harvest a meager crop.
School teachers, government employees, mechanics and store clerks couldn’t find work. Professional people left the valley for greener pastures.
“It must never happen again,” was the response of resilient community leaders in Pueblo and farm communities to the east.
After more than a quarter-century of tireless efforts, these leaders celebrated congressional approval of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, which President John F. Kennedy signed into law in Pueblo on Aug. 16, 1962.
The federal act authorized the transmountain diversion of water from the Fryingpan River watershed on the Western Slope to the Arkansas River, intended for the exclusive use of residents in nine counties of the Arkansas Basin.
Fast forward four decades. Today, we face another threat even more ominous than drought. It is the continuing drying-up of farmland — and much of the Arkansas Valley’s economy — by the increasing urbanization of Colorado Springs and its nefarious ally, Aurora.
We cannot let urban sprawl destroy an entire region of Colorado. We need a real solution that doesn’t leave our part of the state in the dust while others grow and prosper.
Colorado Springs’ proposed Southern Delivery System — a 66-inch diameter, 43-mile long pipeline — is portentous. SDS as planned will wreak havoc on the Fountain Creek-Arkansas River watershed.
At full capacity, SDS is designed to take 78 million gallons of fresh water out of Lake Pueblo, pump it to Colorado Springs and send back effluent return flows down the Fountain to the Arkansas River.
Raw sewage spills have stirred a public outcry in the past year or so. A lawsuit by the Pueblo District Attorney’s Office and the Sierra Club is pending in federal court in pursuit of an end to the repeated violations of the federal Clean Water Act.
Sewage spills are not the only problem, however. Far from it.
By doubling and eventually tripling the already damaging return flows down the Fountain, SDS would make a deteriorating situation far worse than it is. The growing volume of water, treated and untreated, scours the Fountain Creek, erodes the channel, raises sedimentation and lowers the quality of the water and natural creek environment.
Colorado Springs says it needs SDS to deliver water for the city’s future. But urban growth brings yet more houses, sidewalks, parking lots, streets and other impervious surfaces. They generate torrents of storm runoff surging down the Fountain, far beyond the natural capacity of the watershed to handle.
Consider: A flash flood comparable to the one in June 1965 will occur someday, perhaps soon. This time, the flooding, property damage and human suffering in communities from Pueblo to La Junta and beyond will be exponentially worse than in the past.
Flooding threatens to cause a public health crisis worse than occasional sewage spills. We can’t let it happen, knowing that such a terrible outcome can be prevented.
Colorado Springs has better options than just building the $1 billion SDS pipeline to take good water from Lake Pueblo and return sewer effluent, along with dangerous storm runoff.
By far the best alternative has been proposed by Ray Petros, a Denver water lawyer and consultant to Pueblo County on water-related land use matters.
The Petros Plan calls for construction of a permanent flood-control dam and a series of reservoirs to serve the dual beneficial purposes of creating recreational opportunities and recycling Colorado Springs’ existing water supplies. By law, Colorado Springs can use its transmountain water from the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project to extinction. It’s a waste of this natural resource to use the water only once, then let the rest flow downstream to Kansas.
No one is trying to deny Colorado Springs’ right to use this new water to grow and prosper. However, why not do the job right without further damage to the environment and economy of Pueblo and the Lower Arkansas Valley?
Yes, do the right thing, Colorado Springs. Clean up Fountain Creek. Build a real dam, not a dinky inflatable dam, that not only will capture sewage spills but, more importantly, will prevent even more damaging flood waters.
Don’t foul the creek you share with us any more than it already is.
Robert H. Rawlings is publisher and editor of The Pueblo Chieftain.