Colorado Springs could spend $45 million over 15 years to fulfill the requirements of a proposed consent decree to end a lawsuit brought by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other groups over the city's poor stormwater management.
The lawsuit filed in 2016 claimed the city's stormwater control efforts were underfunded and understaffed starting in 2009 and for years afterward. The suit also said the city's failure to control stormwater degraded, eroded and widened Fountain Creek and its tributaries.
City officials stepped up stormwater control efforts in recent years after voters approved a stormwater fee in 2017.
But for years, poor stormwater control sent silt washing down Fountain Creek to the Arkansas River where it filled in the channels of both waterways and caused flooding in communities downstream, including Pueblo and La Junta, said Jay Winner, general manager of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District.
"I think what this agreement will do is it will stop flooding in Pueblo," Winner said.
The proposed consent decree will also hold the city of Colorado Springs accountable to complete the stormwater projects needed to improve water quality, he said. The document outlines required audits, milestones the city must meet, and hefty fines if it fails to complete the required work.
The proposed consent decree is expected to be finalized soon. It must be submitted to U.S. District Court Judge John Kane by Friday, according to court records. The judge set a deadline for submission of the decree, after the parties were granted six requests for more time to reach an agreement.
"It is inappropriate for the court to engage in excessive accommodation to this settlement process. I find we have reached that point, if not exceeded it," Kane wrote in August.
The pending agreement follows a partial judgment in the lawsuit issued in 2018 that did not define penalties for the city.
U.S. Department of Justice spokeswoman Danielle Nichols said the proposed consent decree requires the city to spend $11 million on projects intended to mitigate the alleged violations of water quality standards in Fountain Creek and its tributaries. In addition to helping reduce the flow of silt, the work will help keep oil, grease, heavy metals, pesticides, fertilizers and bacteria out of the waterways, she said.
Fulfilling the requirements of the proposed consent decree could require $100 million in spending to improve stormwater control and associated projects, Nichols said. However, the city would have spent $55 million of the $100 million anyway on operating, personnel and other costs, said Travis Easton, Colorado Springs' public works director.
The $45 million required to fulfill the consent decree is in addition to the $460 million the city is spending over 20 years to build 71 stormwater projects to meet its 2016 agreement with Pueblo County, he said.
The spending on the consent decree includes $2.1 million mostly in fines that the Colorado Springs City Council approved Tuesday. That money will come from the general fund, not stormwater fees, Mayor John Suthers said.
The federal government will receive $1 million in fines and the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District will receive $1 million in state fine revenue to fund projects, according to the proposed consent decree. Pueblo County will receive $25,000 to cover lawsuit costs and the conservancy district will receive $100,000 for lawsuit costs, the document shows.
The fines are far less than the hundreds of millions the Gazette previously reported city could have owed.
"We feel very good about $2 million," Suthers said.
The fine revenue set aside for the conservancy district will help it fund projects across its five-county territory and help it secure additional grant money to meet the needs for water quality projects, Winner said. The district needs to put in projects, such as riparian zones and ditch lining, he said.
The district could put in $100 million in water quality projects and still have work to do, he said.
"We have ignored water quality for too long," he said.