A federal judge’s ruling this past week that Colorado Springs failed to adequately curb the amount of sediment and pollutants flowing down Fountain Creek could leave the city on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars in penalties, two councilmen warned.
“This easily could be worse than Pueblo (County),” Councilman Bill Murray told The Gazette on Saturday, referring to the $460 million stormwater agreement in 2016 between Colorado Springs and Pueblo County.
Two years ago, Colorado Springs sought to placate Pueblo County by promising to spend nearly half a billion dollars on stormwater projects over the next 20 years. Pueblo County residents had long borne the brunt of the damage caused by Colorado Springs’ unwillingness to address erosion and flooding from stormwater runoff flowing downstream in Fountain Creek.
Despite that agreement and the resurrection of a fee that will free up about $17 million a year for the stormwater projects, U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch’s ruled Friday that Colorado Springs was in violation of federal regulations governing runoff into waterways.
Matsch, issuing a partial ruling in a lawsuit filed two years ago by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, found that the city failed to adequately monitor and control what was ending up in creeks at three construction sites.
Matsch faulted city officials for allowing construction crews to skirt stormwater requirements meant to reduce the amount of pollutants discharged from sites which can erode stream banks, degrade water quality and harm downstream communities.
The judge has yet to rule on additional claims in the lawsuit, which eventually was joined by Pueblo County and the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy. He also has not said what if any penalties Colorado Springs could face.
“We’ve been nervous and scared since the beginning,” Councilman Tom Strand said about the lawsuit. “Now all the chickens are coming home to roost on us.”
Strand said he expects the city to be hit with at least a seven-figure judgment.
“I don’t think it’s going to be less than millions,” he said. “If it is, then God bless us.”
If the city is hit with a large judgment, the money might have to come out of the parks, police and fire departments’ budgets, Strand said.
Mayor John Suthers blamed othe lawsuit on “deficient funding in the past,” adding the city will continue trying to resolve it.
“The council and mayor, and now the citizens of Colorado Springs, have taken extraordinary steps to ensure that going forward we will build the best stormwater program in the state,” he said.
Matsch’s ruling addressed six stormwater violations at three sites, said Richard Mulledy, the city’s stormwater manager. Additional alleged violations at different sites have yet to be addressed.
The first part of the trial was held in September, and Strand expects the next phases to carry into next year.
While Matsch’s ruling wasn’t entirely unexpected, officials said, it came as a disappointment to Suthers and others who hoped it could be averted by showing a good-faith effort to address stormwater problems in recent years.
Colorado Springs’ pact with Pueblo County outlines 71 stormwater projects for the city to complete. Before the pact, Pueblo County had threatened to withhold a permit Colorado Springs Utilities needed to complete its $825 million Southern Delivery System.
That project now funnels up to 50 million gallons of water a day from the Arkansas River to Colorado Springs, Fountain, Security and Pueblo West.
None of the plaintiffs could be reached Saturday for comment.