The trial in a lawsuit filed against Colorado Springs by the state and federal government over water quality violations and stormwater program shortfalls dating back to 2009 got underway Wednesday in U.S. District court in Denver.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment filed the lawsuit in November 2016, seeking civil penalties from Colorado Springs over allegations that the city violated its federal stormwater permit.
Opening arguments began Wednesday morning in what is expected to be a two-week trial.
Violations include failures to “properly operate and maintain” stormwater facilities, the complaint says.
Due to those failures Fountain Creek and its tributaries were degraded, eroded and widened, combining that water with surface runoff to boost sedimentation and sully water quality, audits by the EPA found in 2013 and 2015.
“As the runoff flows over land or impervious surfaces (paved streets, parking lots, and building rooftops), it accumulates debris, chemicals, sediment or other pollutants that can adversely affect water quality, erode stream banks, destroy needed habitat for fish and other aquatic life, and make it more difficult and expensive for downstream users to effectively use the water,” the complaint says.
Pueblo County and the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District joined in the lawsuit as plaintiffs in early 2017 and late 2016, respectively. The downstream plaintiffs cited increased E. coli levels, erosion and flooding.
Colorado Springs’ failure to adequately fund its stormwater infrastructure and improvements surrounds the bulk of the claims.
Just this year, Mayor John Suthers successfully led the effort late last year to resurrect stormwater fees which are now expected to raise about $17 million for 71 million projects meant to mitigate floodwaters and pollutants flowing to downstream communities.
Suthers, and other proponents, regarded the fees as a proactive approach to the lawsuit and expressed a hope that the matter could be settled before heading to trial.
The city previously imposed a stormwater fee in 2005, though the move was unpopular and the enterprise was defunded by the City Council in 2009.
“I’m very disappointed with the approach the plaintiffs have taken in this case,” Suthers said. “The city of Colorado Springs has done absolutely everything in its power to implement the best stormwater system in the state, to include voter endorsement of a monthly residential and non-residential stormwater fee. I had hoped that these would be the results that the plaintiffs would want to see, rather than expensive and unproductive litigation.”