A part of history won’t run dry

April 10, 2005
At the age of 111, its shorelines receding and its support system virtually shut off, Prospect Lake seemed near death in the fall of 2002. A fatal combination of a leaky liner, a drought and a tight city budget had reduced the former 51-acre swimming and boating Mecca to a dwindling mudhole.
Across America, as priorities shifting from parks to public safety, this might have been where the story ended. Instead, a few vociferous volunteers and City Council members and a newly formed grass-roots group refused to let the public forget the lake’s history. Rather than an obituary, the tale of the Memorial Park lake became a resurrection allegory. Voters in this fiscally conscious community said by more than a 2-to-1 ratio Tuesday that they wanted to surrender tax refunds to bring the dirty bowl back to life. How it happened is a blueprint in waking up a community and rallying it for a common cause. “People just got used to having the lake and having the city take care of it,” said Nancy Goodbar, president of the year-old advocacy group Prospect Lake Partners. “All of a sudden, people started saying, ‘Maybe the city’s not going to do anything. Maybe we have to do it.’” Prospect Lake was built in 1891 as a reservoir for surplus water from the El Paso Canal. During the next half-century, visionaries crafted Memorial Park around it, and sunbathers, anglers and water skiers flocked there. Even in its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, the lake was hemorrhaging. A clay liner installed in 1954 was leaking water into the ground, and only a constant refill flow from a Colorado Springs Utilities pipe kept it full. In spring 2002, when drought set in, the utility turned off the pipe. The leak teamed with evaporation to pull the water slowly away from the cordoned swimming area and the boating dock. Area residents bemoaned it, but it wasn’t until that fall that someone spoke up. Lynn Londry and Getty Nuhn, members of the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, asked staff members at one meeting: Are we really going to let this disappear? Residents “hadn’t forgotten it, but there was no voice for the lake,” Londry said last week. “A community can understand there’s an issue, but if it remains relatively silent . . . it doesn’t get any newspaper, it doesn’t get any TV, it doesn’t get any traction.” City leaders thought they had solved the problem quickly by refilling the lake in January 2003 with raw water from Monument Creek. By April, though, it had receded drastically again, and a barrage of newspaper stories called attention to it. Swimming season was canceled, and officials, hearing lofty estimates of what it would take to drain and reline the lake, threw up their hands. Councilman Jerry Heimlicher, whose district includes Memorial Park, suggested the city might let the lake go and find other uses for the land. Then two things happened that turned the tide, as it were. The first was that Parks and Recreation Director Paul Butcher hired a geology firm to study why the lake couldn’t retain water. Though that study was riddled with questions and criticism, it concluded that the liner beneath Prospect Lake had always been porous. The second happened more quietly but, observers say, was just as important in the long run. A peace activist named Jean Ferguson formed a group to discuss how to help the lake and called that organization Prospect Lake Partners. --- Ferguson announced the group’s existence in February 2004, shortly before the cause of the leak was determined. For months, it operated quietly, telling council members it would help where it could. Heimlicher and fellow Councilman Larry Small continued to bring up the future of the lake at council meetings. Heimlicher credits Small for complaining so much that the city finally decided to drain and fix the lake. The turning point of the saga happened Aug. 18, 2004. On a rainy night, Ferguson gathered 60 people, including elected officials, beneath a tarp at Hillside Gardens and Nursery to begin raising money. Many who came to listen had never been active in such a cause before, and most had never worked with each other. But as they talked — first there and then with other city residents — they found that the lake held meaning for almost everyone and was not as forgotten as it had seemed. “It was ‘Oh, boy, we walk there’ or ‘Oh, I used to park there when I was in high school,’” said Tom Carlson, vice president of Prospect Lake Partners. “There was always an undercurrent of support there. We just had to bring it out.” Seeing the gathering enthusiasm, Small solicited El Paso County Commissioner Jim Bensberg, who persuaded fellow commissioners to contribute $200,000 to repairs. The council then decided to put a question on the ballot asking the public to give up as much as $1.9 million in tax refunds to fix the lake. City voters had never allowed officials to keep a tax refund for a Parks and Recreation project before. This year, Prospect Lake Partners sprung into action again. Armed with a budget of just $405, members decided they would have to be everywhere and shake every hand before the election. They set up tables at campaign forums, health fairs and a local Republican Party Central Committee meeting. They marched in Old Colorado City’s St. Patrick’s Day parade with handmade campaign signs. Carlson, a financial adviser, pitched the ballot question to his clients. What came out of the minimal campaign showed how deeply advocates had pounded the issue into the community’s mind in the years before the election. Seventy percent of voters traded tax refunds for lake repairs. It wasn’t just lake-area residents that backed the question: Only four of the 280 city precincts that participated in the election voted against Issue 2A. “I was very surprised,” Carlson said. “I would have been happy at 51 percent. Seventy percent was all gravy.” --- John Bowman Inc., a Pueblo-based contractor, has been at work on the lake, pumping out the last of its water last week. The plan is to have it lined by July 1. The city will fill it with treated wastewater by the time of the Colorado Balloon Classic on Labor Day, Butcher said. The people who have spent years working to keep the lake from drying out have more to do. Officials from Prospect Lake Partners are meeting with the parks staff this week to see what role they can play, Goodbar said. That could involve raising money and applying for grants to spruce up the area around the lake. Council members want to improve trails, plant grass in bare areas and restore and reopen the boathouse, and they hope the nonprofit group can help them, Small said. One thing is certain now: Prospect Lake isn’t going away. Neither are the people who read about its troubles and answered the call to preserve one of Colorado Springs’ historical treasures. “I think people are going to come back to the lake,” Goodbar said. “We have a very caring community. They care about their resources because they care about their community.”
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