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Colorado Springs Mayor: Funding stormwater deal 'not optional'

April 11, 2016 Updated: April 20, 2016 at 7:05 pm
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After more than a year of negotiations, a stormwater deal appears to have been reached between the city of Colorado Springs, Colorado Springs Utilities and the Pueblo County Board of County Commissioners. (The Gazette)

After nearly a year of negotiations, a stormwater deal has been reached between the city of Colorado Springs, Colorado Springs Utilities and Pueblo County commissioners.

The tentative intergovernmental agreement, which Mayor John Suthers outlined Monday to the City Council, will benefit not only Pueblo and Pueblo County, but also local residents, by providing $460 million in stormwater projects by 2035.

Those improvements are sorely needed, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency noted in dismal audits of the city stormwater program in 2013 and last August. Unless the situation improves dramatically, the EPA likely would sue Colorado Springs and restrict the MS4 permit that allows the city to send stormwater into the interstate water system.

The more immediate concern was Pueblo County's threat to withhold the 1041 permit it granted to Utilities for the $825 million Southern Delivery System. That massive water system is scheduled to start delivering water April 27, and the intergovernmental agreement would be signed just in the nick of time.

Pueblo County provided the 1041 permit in 2009, when Colorado Springs had a stormwater enterprise fund of about $15 million a year in stormwater projects.

The next year, city voters approved issue 300, restricting enterprise funds.

"Unfortunately in hindsight, at least in my perspective, the council one month later voted 5-4 to defund the stormwater enterprise fund," Suthers said Tuesday.

The downstream county felt that Colorado Springs reneged on its end of the deal, and ensuing floods after the Waldo Canyon Fire in 2012 and again last May exacerbated problems on Fountain Creek and with Pueblo County political leaders.

Suthers started negotiating almost immediately after he was sworn in as mayor in June, and the mayor, Council President Merv Bennett and key leaders from Utilities made repeated trips to Pueblo to smooth the frayed relations and ensure that stormwater improvements would be forthcoming.

The talks proved tricky, as Pueblo's city and county leaders felt increasing pressure to play hardball with Colorado Springs.

Suthers squeezed the city budget to produce millions of dollars. When the city's southern neighbors balked because they had no guarantee, he placed the burden on Utilities to come up with future funding if the city were to fall short.

Along with that assurance, Pueblo County won a promise that if 71 critical stormwater projects aren't completed by 2035, the pact will be renewed for five years with continued, commensurate funding increases.

The City Council and Pueblo County commissioners are set to vote on the pact in two weeks.

Provided they enact the agreement, it will mark a hard-fought resolution to Suthers' most vexing challenge during his 10 months as mayor.

"I personally don't think we could come up with any better result by litigating on two fronts," he hold the council. "We could litigate with Pueblo at risk of jeopardizing the SDS being turned on ... But I have a certain level of confidence the stormwater program we're funding here will go a long way toward resolving our (legal) issues with the EPA."

Besides, he noted: "I mean this very sincerely. It's the right thing to do. And it's something we should do."

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