The posturing in the water war between Colorado Springs and Pueblo has been ratcheted up a notch, and the billion-dollar Southern Delivery System project appears to be farther from becoming a reality than it was only two short years ago.
Last week, U.S. Rep. John Salazar, who represents Pueblo and much of the Western Slope, announced that he will introduce legislation during the next congressional session that spells out the terms and conditions that Colorado Springs would have to comply with in order to expand Pueblo Reservoir.
The bill would require a federally funded study of the social, economic and environmental impacts of water transfers prior to any consideration of reservoir enlargement.
“Nothing in that would circumvent state water law,” Salazar said, “It would define what the impacts to communities are and what mitigation you would have to make if you take the water. We have to get cities like Colorado Springs and Aurora to admit there is massive destruction when water leaves the basin.”
Salazar singled out Fountain Creek as an area of particular concern.
Colorado Springs is part of the Fryingpan-Arkansas project (the federal project which built Pueblo Reservoir in the 1960s), Salazar said. But, he said, the city has an obligation to deal with the increased return flows on the Fountain that have resulted from the city’s growth.
“The bill would require that the state of Colorado study potential avenues — including storage facilities — for cleaning up the return flows into Fountain Creek prior to any federal dollars being spent to study enlargement,” Salazar said.
SDS manager Gary Bostrom flatly dismissed any such “storage facility” (i.e., a flood control dam on the Fountain) as expensive and impractical.
“We think that it would cost over $300 million, that it would fill up with sediment very quickly, and that it just wouldn’t work,” he said. “It wouldn’t accomplish its intended purpose.”
Asked to comment about Salazar’s proposed bill, Springs City Council members were taken aback.
Neither Jerry Heimlicher nor Vice Mayor Larry Small were familiar with the bill. Tom Gallagher would say only that “It has parts I like and parts I don’t like.”
But Mayor Lionel Rivera found nothing to like in the legislation.
“He’s mixing up two unrelated projects — SDS and the reservoir expansion,” Rivera said. “We don’t need overreaching federal legislation to dictate solutions to local problems. We’re already looking at local solutions to Fountain Creek — we understand our obligations.”
Bostrom said that City Council’s approval of a stormwater enterprise, which will collect nearly $20 million annually from property owners, was a signal, in no uncertain terms, that Colorado Springs is serious about mitigating downstream damage from stormwater runoff.
He said that the stormwater enterprise will allow the city to improve stormwater drainage throughout Colorado Springs so that flooding along the Fountain will no longer be a problem.
Bostrom envisages a system of detention ponds, catchments and drop structures that will gradually release stormwater into Fountain Creek, thereby mitigating or preventing many “flood events.”
But many Puebloans are skeptical about such claims.
Because of multiple raw sewage spills into Fountain Creek by Colorado Springs, Pueblo is suing the city, alleging violations of the Clean Water Act. Moreover, the flow of treated effluent from Colorado Springs into Fountain Creek has so increased average stream flow that stormwater events are, SDS opponents say, both more frequent and more severe.
They claim that SDS, and the growth that it will bring, will dramatically accelerate this process.
Pueblo Chieftain Publisher Bob Rawlings, who has long opposed SDS, said that the stormwater enterprise won’t make a difference for many years, if ever.
“They (Colorado Springs) should have started dealing with their stormwater 25 years ago,” he said. “With the money they’re going to get, it’ll take them that much time just to catch up. And what are we supposed to do — just sit here and let them flood us with their sewer water for another 50 years?”
The only cure for the problems on the Fountain, Rawlings said, is to build a dam just south of Colorado Springs — both to store water and prevent flooding.
Rather than build such a dam, Bostrom said, Colorado Springs would pump water directly from the Arkansas in Fremont County, bypassing Pueblo and Pueblo Reservoir altogether.
Such a plan would cost $90 million more than the reservoir option, but would be cheaper than damming the Fountain.
Shawn Yoxey, a Pueblo water lawyer who was recently appointed to the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy Board, which manages the Fryingpan-Arkansas project, doesn’t think that a river intake is feasible.
“God love ’em — let ’em have at it!” she said. “It’ll have to go to court, and it’ll take years and years to resolve.”
How many years? “Maybe eight or 10,” she said.
And although she praises Colorado Springs for creating a dedicated revenue stream for stormwater management, she agrees with Rawlings that downstream communities might not see any benefit from the program for many years.
Yoxey and her colleagues on the water board tried for months to develop a bill that would address reservoir expansion and would be agreeable to all parties, but failed.
She declined to comment about Salazar’s proposed legislation, but said that the 2004 intergovernmental agreements between Pueblo and Colorado Springs, which created a road map for the construction of SDS, need to be re-negotiated.
“(The signatories to) the agreement were negligent in not paying enough attention to what’s happening on Fountain Creek — the increase in sedimentation, in E. coli levels,” she said. “If the parties to the IGA really care, as Colorado Springs claims it does, they’d go back in to address the specific issue of the Fountain (creek). Pueblo deserves nothing less.”