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Pueblo County seeks to join EPA stormwater lawsuit against Colorado Springs

February 8, 2017 Updated: February 8, 2017 at 5:15 pm
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Work was underway December 12, 2016 on the first portion of a three-phase stormwater project on a tributary of Monument Creek. The project is intended to stop erosion and extensive sediment from entering Monument Creek where it empties onto the United States Air Force Academy. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

Pueblo County - having already received a commitment of $460 million in stormwater projects from Colorado Springs over 20 years - now wants to join in a federal and state lawsuit citing Colorado Springs for violating its federal stormwater permit.

Fountain Creek and its tributaries were degraded, eroded and widened, and those waters combined with surface runoff to create excessive sedimentation and substandard water quality, audits by the Environmental Protection Agency found in 2013 and 2015.

The city's failures since 2009 violated its federal storm sewer system permit, the EPA reported, with the Department of Justice filing the lawsuit on the EPA's behalf last November. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment joined the suit as another plaintiff.

Wednesday, Pueblo County commissioners decided to try to join in the lawsuit, following a December effort by the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District to also become a plaintiff. The motion to include the Lower Ark, as it is known, hasn't been decided.

The Lower Ark, representing Bent, Crowley, Otero, Prowers and Pueblo counties, has seen Colorado Springs break stormwater promises repeatedly, said district Executive Director Jay Winner.

Pueblo County commissioners echoed such complaints, saying the city doesn't adequately fund its stormwater management program, maintain the infrastructure or reduce discharge of pollutants.

In addition to the $460 million stormwater pact, the city has increased stormwater funding to $19 million a year, including $3 million from Colorado Springs Utilities. That's up from $5 million in 2015.

Pueblo County and Lower Ark both cite increased E. coli levels, erosion, sedimentation and flooding.

The county's action was another blow for Mayor John Suthers, who has committed to rectifying the city's stormwater problems since he took office in June 2015.

"In light of the fact that Pueblo County is well aware of the outstanding stormwater program Colorado Springs is putting together, and that we are meeting and exceeding our commitments under the intergovernmental agreement between our entities, I am very disappointed in their decision to seek to intervene in the EPA lawsuit," Suthers said Wednesday. "Intervention by parties without regulatory authority will only serve to make the litigation more complex, more lengthy, more expensive for all parties and possibly more unproductive."

Said Pueblo County Commission spokeswoman Paris Carmichael: "This isn't about picking a fight with Colorado Springs. This is about giving the citizens of Pueblo County a voice."

The county had threatened last year to withhold a permit essential for completion of the $825 million Southern Delivery System, a massive water project delivering Arkansas River water to Colorado Springs, Security, Fountain and Pueblo West.

So Suthers and other city officials worked with Pueblo city and county officials to hammer out the $460 million intergovernmental agreement, which facilitated release of the permit.

Meanwhile, Suthers also got to work reorganizing the city's Stormwater Division, bringing in new director Richard Mulledy, who had worked in Pueblo; ratcheting up its staff from 28 to an eventual 66; and releasing an inch-thick new Stormwater Program Implementation Plan on Nov. 2, one week before the EPA filed suit.

The mayor now is asking voters to approve an April 4 ballot measure that would let the city retain $6 million in excess sales tax revenues to further improve the stormwater system. The city's extra tax money is expected to top out at $9 million or more, with any amount above the $6 million request being refunded to residents if the ballot issue passes.

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