On Valentine’s Day, newly seated Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace wrote a letter to Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach, expressing concerns over the increased danger of catastrophic flooding along Fountain Creek.
That danger, Pace pointed out, is a direct consequence of Colorado Springs’ inability and/or unwillingness to fund its backlog of stormwater infrastructure maintenance and improvements, with cost estimates now reaching beyond $900 million.
The city’s apparent indifference to Pueblo’s concerns may bear bitter fruit, Pace warned in a press release dated Feb. 18. The message was simple: “Pace to Springs: No Stormwater protection, no SDS.”
As we recently pointed out, the city is between a particularly adamantine rock and an especially spiky hard place.
In 2009, the Pueblo County commissioners gave the final go-ahead to the Southern Delivery System when they approved a construction permit for the project. The 1041 permit, so named for the legislation that gives counties de facto veto powers over projects within their jurisdiction undertaken by other local governments, contained certain conditions. Of them, the most significant concerned stormwater mitigation.
All of the stormwater runoff from Colorado Springs drains into Fountain Creek and eventually finds its way to Pueblo, where the Fountain meets the Arkansas River. Once a placid prairie creek, the Fountain’s baseline flows have increased substantially in recent years through hard surface runoff, landscape irrigation and treated wastewater originating within the corporate boundaries of Colorado Springs.
SDS, both by enabling future growth and by injecting more water into the system, will further substantially increase baseline flows.
Pueblo County’s then-commissioners made it clear: no mitigation, no deal. They didn’t trust us, given the often contentious (some might say duplicitous) history between Colorado Springs and the Lower Arkansas Valley. They insisted on a defined, permanent and adequate source of funds for stormwater mitigation.
That’s why the Stormwater Enterprise was created, and that’s why the Colorado Springs City Council didn’t ask the voters for permission to do so.
Councilors feared, reasonably enough, that the voters would nix the whole idea, putting at risk not just the hundreds of millions already invested in the project, but also endangering the future growth and prosperity of Colorado Springs. They made a bold, farsighted, and visionary decision — and the voters effectively overturned it.
They say of pilots that there are old pilots and bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots. In politics, there are bold visionaries and old visionaries, but neither are re-elected.
“Because the entire Colorado Springs metro area watershed drains into Fountain Creek,” Pace wrote, “any increase in water consumption in the Springs would threaten Pueblo, which sits on the confluence of Fountain Creek and the Arkansas River. Colorado Springs assured my community that flooding risk would be mitigated because of the aggressive Stormwater Enterprise. The key stormwater protection for Pueblo was undercut when Colorado Springs’ voters followed Douglas Bruce’s lead in November 2009, eliminating this Enterprise.”
You can bet that Pace acted with the tacit approval of his two commissioner colleagues, Buffie McFadyen and Terry Hart. The fact that, in his letter, Pace copied Ray Petros, Pueblo’s “Special Water Counsel,” also is significant.
In this context, it behooves our quarrelsome local governments to get their acts together and clean up the mess. Pace and his colleagues are not interested in our problems. They don’t care who controls the new enterprise, who pays for it or whose feelings are hurt. They want results, and they want them now.
That means putting something on the ballot this November, not at some agreeably distant time in the future. That means having a backup plan in case the taxophobic voters once again reject the deal as a scheme to impose an initiative-proof stormwater fee.
And suppose none of this works? Will the Pueblo commissioners acknowledge defeat, let the mighty waters roll unimpeded, and advise Pueblo residents to stock up on sandbags?
No. They’ll rescind their approval of the 1041 permit, and they’ll go to court to prevent Colorado Springs Utilities from completing the project, and from using the pipeline to transport water from Pueblo Reservoir.
How will we defend ourselves in court?
I imagine that we’ll hew to an ancient legal maxim.
“When the facts are on your side, pound the facts. When the law is on your side, pound the law. And when neither are on your side, pound the table!”
I haven’t asked City Attorney Chris Melcher, but I hope he has a good, solid table handy. He’s going to need it.