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Stormwater: Hear the alarms?

Between the Lines

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Halfway through his first — and perhaps only? — term as Colorado Springs' mayor, Steve Bach faces a laundry list of major issues, all of which he appears determined to resolve himself.

There's the airport, with its fast-dwindling passenger numbers. Bach dumped airport director Mark Earle, promised bold new strategies to revive and enhance local air service, and led us to believe existing airlines would resurrect flights to previously served destinations. So far, we've had a happy announcement about Alaska Airlines adding one flight a day to Seattle — in December. Far from a turnaround.

Then there's the Regional Tourism Act, hyped as a panacea for much of what ails us. Yet from all indications, the city's secretive process in planning its application has trampled all over the state's specific guidelines and requirements. And regardless, it's hard to imagine Colorado Springs selling anything beyond an Olympic museum as a true draw for new tourism.

We can't forget economic development, and Bach's apparent interest in a more hands-on role there as well. After all, the mayor last summer talked about adding 18,000 jobs in three years, not just 6,000 in one year.

Yet, from this view, another priority should rank higher than any of those on Bach's list.

That would be stormwater.

If you disagree, perhaps you didn't notice what happened on the evening of Monday, July 1, when a sudden rainstorm on the Waldo Canyon burn scar caused a near-disaster in Manitou Springs. We had heard for a year that such floods were inevitable, potentially much worse than this first real-life alarm. If 20 minutes and about a half-inch of rain created that much havoc, what might result from a day-long deluge of several inches cascading into Fountain Creek and onward to Pueblo?

Also, as bad as the burn scar's threat will be for the next decade or longer, post-fire mitigation is far from our only stormwater need.

This is no longer a problem. It's a crisis, no matter what anyone says or thinks. And the time has come for Bach to admit that it's not just a city matter. This is El Paso County's problem as well, and the county along with all of its municipalities have to face it together.

The solution should be obvious to every elected leader in our midst, and it actually is to many of them. Bach, the Springs City Council, the county commissioners and the smaller towns must convene a group and start deciding how to take action.

We already know the stormwater needs are enormous. Colorado Springs staff earlier estimated at least $500 million inside the city. Then a study by Summit Economics produced a figure of $750 million for the region, nearly all within the Springs and El Paso County. And a special regional task force, made up of civic and business people with massive credibility, calculated the infrastructure needs at $900 million for the county, nearly $700 million of that within the city.

Bach's response? Hire another engineer to provide another "expert opinion" — as if that might differ radically. That report, Bach wrote two months ago in an op-ed for the Gazette, will come this fall, and then he'll decide how to respond. As if it's all up to him.

Meanwhile, the annual "monsoon" rains have appeared. The flash flood of July 1 provided a real scare.

What we need is a city-county alliance, if only this once, asking for an emergency, county-wide stormwater tax. It could be a sales tax (a half-cent has been suggested), a mill levy on property taxes, or a monthly charge to all property owners, until the needs are met.

None of those will sit well with our many tax-loathing residents. But if we do nothing, soon we'll face a much worse outcome. Pueblo County will sue us and probably force the Springs to fix all Fountain Creek-related problems as soon as possible, making us responsible for any damages downstream until all work is done. The penalties for procrastination could be severe.

Talking to the Gazette in May 2012 for a story on stormwater, Bach himself said, "The day of reckoning is in front of us."

His latest expert opinion might help in setting the final price tag. But the crisis is here, and we can't put it off any longer.

We have to do something — now. That "day of reckoning" has arrived.

routon@csindy.com

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