Blame it on the rain. Colorado Springs has over $300 million worth of drainage projects begging to be completed.
Precipitation flows off our roofs, down our driveways, and through our parking lots. It ends up in one of our creeks. Sometimes the water rages downstream, eroding banks, picking up dirt and trash, slamming into bridges, then carrying the whole mess down south to Pueblo.
In 2006, City Council established the Stormwater Enterprise to control this system by repairing, replacing and protecting our bridges, streets and streambeds. But the Beatles were right: Nobody likes a taxman.
Proving the point, Colorado Springs' recession-scarred voters — spurred on by anti-taxer Douglas Bruce's calls to "end the rain tax" — pummeled the city's Stormwater Enterprise in November by passing Issue 300.
Shell-shocked City Councilors responded by saying the oddly worded ballot measure did not require them to end Stormwater fees. The public was enraged, and Council acquiesced, agreeing to end the fees come January, but allowing the Stormwater Enterprise to continue until it exhausts remaining funds and finishes contracted projects.
End of story? Not quite. Despite Bruce's assertions, the Stormwater Enterprise isn't just a "rain tax." It was designed to keep people safe, protect private property from storm damage, stave off astronomical federal fines, and appease Pueblo leaders who hold the fate of Colorado Springs Utilities' prized $1.5 billion Southern Delivery System in their hands.
Stormwater's demise isn't exactly a good omen for the city or its residents.
Going with the flow
Stormwater Enterprise manager Ken Sampley unfolds a large budget graph labeled "DRAFT" in big gray letters. He circles one total: $66,145,000. That was the estimated cost in 2006 of completing Stormwater's 26 top-priority drainage projects.
He circles another number: $82,790,676. The estimated cost for completing the same 26 projects in 2009 dollars.
Stormwater began work in 2007, with a backlog of more than $300 million in projects. So far, Stormwater hasn't put much of a dent in that.
"We never got to the point where we even got close to our $60 million," Sampley says. "If we can't get close to the $60 million, why even worry about the next couple hundred million?"
On average, Stormwater collected $16 million a year in fees, and spent about $8 million annually on capital projects, leveraging the money where possible. The rest went to other needs: In 2009, over $4 million was spent on maintenance and another $1.7 million to maintain mandated federal water quality standards. The rest was sucked up by engineering, planning studies and administrative costs.
Over three years, fees produced just $22.5 million for projects. Stormwater leveraged that to nearly $30 million but still finished less than a third of those top-priority projects.
"I never had in my mind that we were ever going to catch up," Sampley says.
But with Stormwater ending, the Springs can forget about playing catch-up and start worrying about the backlog. High-priority projects will turn into emergencies as cheap fixes deteriorate into top priorities.
Sampley says he'll squeeze what he can out of Stormwater's remaining funds. A project along U.S. 24 that will prevent mine tailings from getting into the creek and protect the road from flood damage will be finished. So will another project aimed at keeping a Qwest building from falling into Cottonwood Creek.
"If you lose the major Qwest facility," Sampley notes, "you lose telecommunications for, like, the northern half of the city."
Two intersections — one along South Academy and another on Powers Boulevard — are likely to get fixed because waterflows from Sand Creek are undermining bridges holding up the major thoroughfares. More damage could lead to road closures.
But the rest of the drainage backlog will get ignored until another solution presents itself. With Stormwater work frozen, Sampley says, more bridges could become unsound and creekbanks could erode, taking out roads, swaths of private property, and even buildings. With no maintenance, the city could see more large sinkholes as 1,400 miles of underlying storm sewers corrode and collapse. Even worse, work already done by Stormwater could be washed away during a major storm, because upstream work still needs to be done to control flows.
"I don't think people understand what loss in value of infrastructure we're going to have in this city," Sampley says.
One project that Stormwater won't complete has certain consequences. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has said it will declare a northeast section as a 100-year floodplain if repairs and updates aren't made to the Templeton Gap levee. The floodplain area contains more than 3,000 properties and 5,000 structures. With no Stormwater funds, the Templeton Gap project, which could cost up to $6 million, won't get done, and most lenders will require property owners within the plain to buy flood insurance. While Stormwater fees cost a single family home $25.80 to $163.80 a year, flood insurance will cost many times that amount.
Councilor Scott Hente has fought hard to keep his constituents from paying those big insurance premiums. After 300 passed, he wanted to keep Stormwater fees for at least two years, so Templeton Gap could be completed. But he was in the minority. And his fighting spirit on the issue was tempered when he found out a majority of the floodplain residents voted for 300.
"You're saving yourself a few bucks a year," Hente says with astonishment, "to incur the luxury of spending $1,000 a year on flood insurance."
Stormwater's demise will hit the city and Colorado Springs Utilities right where it hurts. In the wallet.
With no fees, the city will have to fork over money for emergency stormwater repairs. It'll also have to pay for a federally mandated basic stormwater program costing about $1.75 million a year. If the city doesn't pay, it could face fines of up to $27,500 per day for each water quality-degrading "incident" from the Environmental Protection Agency, plus an additional $10,000 in daily civil fines from the state. If an incident isn't properly reported or is deliberate, the state can also levy criminal fines of up to $25,000 a day.
But the death of Stormwater grieves none so much as Utilities. It loses a crucial partner in controlling rainwater runoff, which eventually makes its way to Fountain Creek — the lightning rod in the city gaining approval for its Southern Delivery System.
The pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir will pump more than 70 million gallons a day into the Colorado Springs system, potentially creating greater flows along Fountain Creek. Through the years, the creek has been carved up and washed out due to runoff from development that didn't include proper drainage structures. That's because decades ago, the goal was simply to move the water as quickly as possible into Monument and Sand creeks, which empty into Fountain Creek, despite their inability to handle larger flows. Hence, washouts and flooding.
Drainage engineers now know the better approach includes detention ponds to retain water and empty gradually without overpowering creeks and tributaries.
Stormwater was tackling such projects. Now, Utilities wonders whether the absence of those projects will create more work.
"We believe the enterprise was helpful, and we even partnered on some projects," Bruce McCormick, Utilities water chief, says. Notably, creekbed stabilization and outfalls installed by the enterprise help slow water flows. "The loss does mean there will be a greater cost (to Utilities) for damage in the future."
Utilities also has to worry about keeping Pueblo satisfied. Pueblo is key, because it granted Utilities a permit to construct the pipeline across Pueblo County in exchange for keeping Fountain Creek viable and pollution-free. Winning the permit was no small task after years of sewer line breaks that resulted in sewage being swept into Fountain Creek and, eventually, to Pueblo. The chronic spills inflamed Pueblo residents and decision-makers and even led to a federal Clean Water Act lawsuit in which the Pueblo County District Attorney was a plaintiff.
Rebuilding a relationship with Pueblo wasn't easy, but the city did it through promising to be a good steward of Fountain Creek and assuring that new development won't increase peak flows. Stormwater played a key role in those promises, but Utilities separately pledged to dredge Pueblo's levees to restore 100-year flood capacity, add sediment removal devices on the creek, and perform wetlands work.
Earlier this month, after City Council voted to dismantle the enterprise, McCormick was called on the carpet by Pueblo County commissioners, who wanted to know what impact Stormwater's demise would have on the SDS deal.
McCormick assured them the city's promises won't go down the drain, although it might be more difficult for Utilities to honor its commitments. "It remains to be seen what will be the effects of the loss of the enterprise," he says in an interview.
Pueblo County Commissioner Jeff Chostner says officials are concerned.
"We are disappointed with its demise," Chostner says in an e-mail to the Independent. "We are also concerned about this adversely affecting (the) growing and positive relationship between the communities. We hope this does not signal a reversal of all the good things that the communities have jointly participated in over the last several years. But we consider it a step backwards and will be watching all actions scrupulously."
The Pueblo Chieftain wrote in an editorial: "The five Springs council members who voted to dump the stormwater enterprise this month have shown bad faith with the people of Pueblo." And the Pueblo West View recalls Mayor Lionel Rivera's statements in November 2005 when the council established the enterprise on a 7-2 vote: "We're looking at a population of 900,000 in 35 years. If we're not willing to address stormwater today, I don't think it's fair to ask others in the region to endorse the Southern Delivery System."
On the horizon
To make up for losing Stormwater, there's hope the Fountain Creek Watershed, Flood Control and Greenway District can play a role. Formed this year, the district board will oversee spending $50 million from Utilities in the next five years on trails, protecting wildlife and other steps to preserve and enhance the corridor. But it's unclear whether the district would undertake major construction projects throughout the watershed, which covers 927 square miles and extends from Woodland Park and Monument to Pueblo.
County Commissioner Sallie Clark says the district could take on construction work if it had a source of funding that would provide enough money. While the watershed district has authority to refer a tax measure to the ballot, voters in both El Paso and Pueblo counties would have to approve it. Even then, the money would have to be spent to benefit the watershed, leaving other drainage issues in the lurch.
"We'll work with what we have," Clark says, "but it doesn't take the place of the Stormwater Enterprise that the city is eliminating."
Clark says she wishes the city and county had joined forces years ago to form a drainage district, but now, given voter sentiment, she questions the likelihood of such a plan forming any time soon.
Besides, Councilor Darryl Glenn adds, seeking taxpayer support for a regional stormwater district or watershed tax just isn't as important as the city's most crucial problem.
"We still have a bigger issue," he says, "and that's building the community's confidence in the city."