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Colorado Springs gets reprieve on challenge to Southern Delivery System water project

January 19, 2016 Updated: January 20, 2016 at 2:16 pm
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PUEBLO - Colorado Springs city and Utilities officials on Tuesday fended off another in a rash of recent challenges to the massive Southern Delivery System water project, scheduled to start operating April 27.

The Pueblo Board of Water Works agreed to table for one month a resolution supporting Pueblo County efforts to require guaranteed stormwater funding if the SDS is to keep its hard-won 1041 permit.

Pueblo County issued that permit only after Colorado Springs Utilities spent years negotiating and crafting complex agreements with county, local, state and multiple federal agencies.

It's the key to the $829 million SDS, one of the biggest modern-day water projects in the West, geared to deliver up to 50 million gallons of water a day to Pueblo West, Colorado Springs, Fountain and Security.

But Utilities' massive project and its 1041 permit are not to be confused with the city of Colorado Springs' beleaguered MS4 permit, SDS Director John Fredell told the Water Works board.

The city's MS4, or Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System permit, is vulnerable since longtime neglect of critical stormwater controls led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to cite the city in October with multiple violations.

For years, Colorado Springs hasn't properly enforced drainage regulations, conducted adequate inspections, required developers to provide enough infrastructure or maintained and operated its own stormwater controls adequately, EPA inspections in August concluded.

Now city officials are negotiating with the EPA and the Department of Justice to maintain the MS4 permit. They don't deny the EPA's claims. Indeed, they had discussed the problems and started scrambling for solutions shortly after John Suthers was sworn in as mayor last June, months before the EPA inspections.

But downstream Pueblo County has been a prime victim of Colorado Springs' failure to control stormwater surging through Fountain Creek and its tributaries. And the county holds the 1041 permit, which some believe could be used as leverage.

As Colorado Springs development has sprawled farther, more sponge-like land has morphed into impermeable pavement, leaving stormwater roiling across the terrain.

Sediment in Fountain Creek has increased at least 278-fold since the Waldo Canyon fire in 2012, pushing water levels far higher, reported Wright Water Engineers Inc. of Denver, contracted by the county.

Sediment grew from 90 to 25,075 tons per year while water yields increased from 2,500 to 4,822 acre-feet, the engineers found.

City and Utilities officials have been meeting with those engineers and their own consulting engineering firm, MWH Global, to prioritize projects.

They've developed a list of 73, including 58 projects recommended by Wright Water, said city Public Works Director Travis Easton. Work on the first of those commences next week, with detention ponds to be developed along flood-prone Sand Creek near the Colorado Springs Airport.

But skepticism lingers in Pueblo County, despite that effort plus creation of a new Stormwater Division, more than doubling the number of city inspectors and enforcement staff and the vow to dedicate $19 million a year to stormwater solutions.

They've heard promises before, Water Works board members noted Tuesday. They want a guaranteed, ironclad source of funding to stanch the stormwater that inundates their communities. And they want it yesterday.

"History's important," said Dr. Thomas V. Autobee, a Water Works board member.

Jay Winner, executive director of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, had threatened in August to file a federal lawsuit against Colorado Springs for violations of the Clean Water Act.

Tuesday, Winner reminded the water board of how the then-Colorado Springs City Council eradicated its stormwater enterprise fund in 2009 - soon after the 1041 permit was issued - "the definition of hoodwink."

Voters had just passed Issue 300, requiring payments to city-owned enterprises to be phased out. The subsequent council vote still rankles downstream Fountain Creek denizens.

Still, that fund never provided more than $15.8 million, Fredell noted. By contrast, the city and Utilities now are determined to spend more than $19 million a year on stormwater for at least 10 years.

They're working on an intergovernmental agreement that would provide the guarantees Pueblo County seeks.

"Enforceablity is always an issue," Mark Pifher, SDS permitting and compliance manager, told the Water Works board. "But we're in discussion with the EPA and Department of Justice. The handwriting is on the wall. There will be either a consent decree or a federal order, and nothing is more enforceable."

"If we can work this draft into something sustainable," Autobee said, "that's what I'd like to see."

Board Chairman Nicholas Gradisar said he's encouraged by the city and Utilities' concerted efforts and swift action. "What I'm not encouraged by is the inability to come to agreement with Pueblo County."

Gradisar said the funding must be guaranteed in perpetuity, not only 10 years, with an enforcement mechanism that doesn't require a federal lawsuit.

Suthers, City Council President Merv Bennett and Utilities officials will meet with the Pueblo County Board of Commissioners at 1:30 p.m. Monday to continue discussions on the fate of the 1041 permit.

That meeting is in commission chambers at the old downtown Pueblo County Courthouse, 215 W. 10th St.

That night, the Pueblo City Council is to decide on a resolution similar to that tabled by the Water Works Board. It would support the county's efforts to obtain sustained stormwater funding from Colorado Springs.

The council meets at 7 p.m. Monday at City Hall, 1 City Hall Place, in Council Chambers on the third floor.

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