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Colorado Springs to invest heavily in stormwater improvements, hoping to stave off EPA action

November 2, 2016 Updated: November 2, 2016 at 8:07 pm
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photo - In this 2009 photo, Jon Bowman, left, and his brother Matt Bowman from A-1 Barricade and Sign, Inc. install an erosion barrier along Fountain Creek as part of a $3 million Stormwater Enterprise project.  Photo by The Gazette file
In this 2009 photo, Jon Bowman, left, and his brother Matt Bowman from A-1 Barricade and Sign, Inc. install an erosion barrier along Fountain Creek as part of a $3 million Stormwater Enterprise project. Photo by The Gazette file 

With the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency breathing down its neck, Colorado Springs is more than doubling its stormwater division staff and pumping about $7.1 million this year alone into keeping city waterways clean and free-flowing and the water quality high.

The EPA threatened to sue after it audited the city stormwater system in August 2015 - two months after Mayor John Suthers took office - and found no improvement since a dismal state audit in February 2013.

"We have not yet resolved the issues (with the EPA)," Suthers said in an interview Wednesday. "Our emphasis of course is looking forward: Let's make things right. We think any kind of large fine would be unproductive. We feel we've done a really good job at addressing all the deficiencies."

A new Stormwater Program Implementation Plan released Wednesday outlines how the division staff will more than double, from 28 to 66 full-time employees, all dedicated to stormwater, with 49 already on board.

The annual city budget for MS4 permit compliance climbs from about $3 million to about $7.1 million this year. That Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System permit allows the flow into interstate waters, from Fountain Creek into the Arkansas River to the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico.

The $7.1 million devoted to MS4 comes in addition to $9.2 million a year being spent on capital projects, plus $3 million from Colorado Springs Utilities, for a total of more than $19 million a year.

In order to protect water quality, strict enforcement will be launched at construction and industrial sites and with private developers who don't comply.

In all, 71 projects will be completed over the next 20 years, with channel improvements consuming the most funds. In order to speed such improvements, though, the city might use outside contractors on capital projects until all additional staff members are on board.

Suthers had a message for the community. "We have to face the fact that Colorado Springs has underfunded its stormwater program for a number of years. And we have a lot of work to do."

Unlike most every other city in America, he said, "We don't have a dedicated fund for stormwater."

The City Council could create a stormwater fund unilaterally if it chose to do so. But the mayor wants more information first, so members of public works, finance and the city attorney's office are researching how other cities' stormwater programs are structured.

"The other thing voters or the council have a right to expect, if you do this (create the fund), you're freeing some money that's been going to stormwater. I think the council or voters are going to want to know, what do you do with that money?"

He would propose investing it in the Police Department, which now has 14 officers per 10,000 people - compared with 18 in Aurora and 21 in Denver.

"To put 100 officers on the street is $10 million a year," Suthers said. "I do think the public is starting to focus on police issues. Policing is much more technical today, but ultimately, there's no substitute for a human being driving around in a car."

But without a stormwater fund, how will the city pay its $16 million annual obligation?

"We're going to get it from the general fund until we can get it from another fund. If the city falls short in any five-year period with the intergovernmental agreement (with Pueblo County), Utilities makes up the difference," he said.

"I'm not worried about that. What I'm worried about rather is the consequences to the city if this doesn't get funded. I would hope the average Joe would want the city of Colorado Springs to be compliant. The EPA does have jurisdiction over stormwater."

This strong push to "make things right" comes after nearly a decade of essentially ignoring stormwater concerns. The recession started in 2008, and voters in 2009 backed Issue 300, which weakened city use of enterprise funds. The then-City Council promptly eliminated the city's Stormwater Enterprise Fund, which levied fees based mostly on a property's impervious surface area.

The loss of that $15 million to $16 million a year infuriated officials in Pueblo County, who threatened to withdraw the vital 1041 permit for the Southern Delivery System, an $825 million project that was 20 years in the making. Pueblo County, after all, was receiving heavy sedimentation in flows from Fountain Creek.

Suthers soon found himself surfing dual waves of stormy waters - negotiating with Pueblo County to save the delivery system, and conferring with the EPA on how best to meet requirements of the MS4 permit.

Months of frustrating negotiations with Pueblo County finally resulted in April in the 20-year agreement for the city to complete 71 capital projects, spending more than $460 million over 20 years.

The money will be spent in five-year increments, at a rate of $100 million the first five years followed by $110 million, $120 million and $130 million. Any developers' projects or other efforts would be in addition to the promised amounts.

If the projects aren't done in time, the accord will be extended five years. And if Colorado Springs can't come up with the money required, the city-owned Utilities will have to do so.

But while negotiations with Pueblo County were tough, efforts to satisfy the EPA evidently have proven even more difficult. A decision from the federal agency is expected "relatively quickly," Suthers said.

Whatever the EPA decides, Suthers long has insisted that the city's stormwater shortcomings must be fixed.

"I mean this very sincerely," he told The Gazette last April. "It's the right thing to do. And it's something we should do."

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