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Pueblo County officials remain wary of Colorado Springs water project

September 20, 2013 Updated: September 20, 2013 at 8:25 pm

PUEBLO - A construction update on the $1 billion Southern Delivery System played out Friday like dinner theater with a polished cast of characters, intrigue and accusations.

Three Pueblo County commissioners sat back and listened to presentations by Colorado Springs Utilities highest ranking officials about the progress of the 53-mile pipeline that soon will carry millions of gallons of water from the Pueblo Reservoir north to Colorado Springs.

Commissioners also heard from distraught residents who said they had been lied to and wronged over the building of the pipeline that runs through their property. One resident displayed eight inches of paperwork accumulated in his legal battle with Utilities.

Then there was praise from local business owners who said the SDS project saved their businesses from despair in the down economy by providing millions in local contracts.

Commissioners took it all in, asked few questions and never revealed their thoughts on the project. But they believe they have leverage in how the SDS story ends and they are plotting their next move, said Terry Hart, Pueblo County commissioner.

"We are trying to sort though what we need . . . we are trying to stick to the game plan, what needs to be done to protect our citizens through the 1041 - that is precisely what we are trying to do," he said.

SDS construction began in 2010. One year earlier, Pueblo County Commissioners signed off on a 1041 land use permit. But at the time, Colorado Springs collected a stormwater enterprise fee and Pueblo County Commissioners were promised that some of the stormwater projects slated to be built using those fees were for improvements on Fountain Creek, specifically to control flows headed south toward Pueblo and ensure the highest water quality in Fountain Creek.

But in 2009 Colorado Springs City Council nixed the stormwater fee collection program after residents cried foul that the fee was instituted without their input.

Now Pueblo and Colorado Springs are at odds over what the 1041 permit requires. The permit does not include a list of projects that must be completed on Fountain Creek, said Mark Pifher, SDS permitting and compliance manager.

Pueblo County Commissioners see it differently. They said the permit was granted because Colorado Springs had the stormwater enterprise fee. Without the fee, they have grounds to challenge whether Colorado Springs is living up to the permit's expectations.

The recent rainstorms only emphasized Pueblo's concerns about Colorado Springs' stormwater efforts, said commissioner Sal Pace.

"This is a very timely meeting - it brings up so many concerns from the communities along the Fountain Creek have had for a long time," Pace said. "For decades there has been a lot of concern. Flooding along the creek has been devastating to Pueblo County."

By now, 18.4 miles of SDS pipeline from the Pueblo Dam heading north has been laid. Only .3 miles remains to connect to the pipes that have been built from the north. Crews also have started a revegetation program to replace the plants and trees disturbed by the construction.

Colorado Springs Utilities spent $160,000 on maintenance roads during construction; paid the county $10 million for rehabilitation of land disturbed; will pay $5 million next year for more road improvement and restoration; paid the county $2.2 million for dredging creek work; spent $26 million on wastewater system improvements, which is about one third of the planned $75 million; and will pay $50 million for Fountain Creek mitigation once the SDS pipeline opens in 2016.

Nearly 100 Pueblo businesses have been hired for the project for about $60 million in construction contracts. The project also required acquiring 160 pieces of land, most were easements and six were houses. Colorado Springs Utilities paid fair market value, said Keith Riley, SDS deputy program director. Utilities went through an eminent domain process with two property owners and is in the process of a court procedure with one property owner.

All told, Colorado Springs Utilities feels good about the project's progress, its proceedure for completing the work and its economic benefit to the county, Riley and other utilities officials said.

Commissioners will meet with their own engineers to scrutinize the reports given by utilities to ensure the SDS project meets all the conditions of the 1041 permit, Hart said.

The project is two years from completion and Hart believes that if Colorado Springs does not make improvements on the Fountain Creek as promised Pueblo has legal grounds to see them in court.

"We hope we don't need to do that," he said. "When you get to litigation, it means everything else you have tried has failed. Sometimes you feel so sad taxpayers have to pay for litigation like that on both sides. We will do what we need to do."

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