- The meadow as it exists today just northeast of Garden of the Gods, compared to an artist’s rendering of the detention pond, part of the city’s flood control project.
Former City Council President Scott Hente walked his share of miles in the shoes of a city official during his tenure from 2003 to 2013.
So, he sympathizes with the city’s sense of urgency to push forward with stormwater projects, a program he enthusiastically supported while on Council. But now, as president of Friends of Garden of the Gods, Hente wonders if the city’s zeal for a specific project stems more from a desire to placate plaintiffs, like the Environmental Protection Agency, in an epic federal lawsuit over stormwater controls, than its impact on flooding.
Specifically, Hente and the friends group, a nonprofit that works to preserve and promote the park, opposes the city’s plan to gouge a pristine meadow on the park’s northeast side and reshape it into a 20-acre detention pond.
But their opposition won’t change the city’s course. On June 10, the city announced that work begins within a week on the $8.9 million project, which the city says will reduce flood risk on Camp Creek and remove 110 properties in the 31st Street corridor from the flood plain.
“I’m torn,” Hente says as he walks a path toward the pond site. “I’m sympathetic to the city and its issues with the lawsuit, but I would hate to see the natural landscape and wildlife habitat disturbed.”
In November 2016, the EPA and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment sued the city of Colorado Springs in federal court, alleging the city’s neglect of its stormwater system befouled Fountain Creek and the Arkansas River. Pueblo County and the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, downstream from Colorado Springs, joined the suit.
The lawsuit has stalled with the recent death of U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch, who was overseeing the case. But last fall, Matsch ruled the city violated its municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4) permit for discharging runoff into the Arkansas River watershed and failed to hold developers to the city’s own drainage rules. (Mayor John Suthers contends the city now demands compliance from developers.)
Meantime, the city struck a 20-year, $460-million intergovernmental agreement (IGA) with Pueblo County to improve drainage and persuaded voters in November 2017 to impose fees on residents and businesses to fund it.
The Camp Creek project will draw $1.1 million from city stormwater “emergency” funds. That’s the city’s 25 percent share of the project. The state will fund another $1.1 million, but the bulk of the money, $6.7 million, comes from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program in the wake of the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire.
The fire incinerated the foothills, leaving barren ground susceptible to flooding. When heavy rains pummeled the burn scar, water and debris scoured Camp Creek, and other channels, north, east and south of Garden of the Gods.
The city’s solution calls for Camp Creek channel improvements, a catchment structure to trap debris, reworking the 31st Street channel and excavation for the massive detention pond at Garden of the Gods.
The sediment capture structure will “significantly reduce” flooding and improve water quality, the city says in a release. The city also says removing 110 homes along 31st Street from the federal flood plain will free homeowners from paying federal flood insurance. No houses there flooded after the Waldo fire.
The detention pond will harness and gradually release flood waters, the city says. The pond’s dam will be topped with a trail, and, as city engineering programs manager Mike Chaves noted in a statement, the area will be seeded “with native grasses and shrubs similar to the existing vegetation,” allowing the pond to “blend into the natural environment to the extent practical.”
City spokesperson Kim Melchor says via email consideration of the Camp Creek improvements dates to the fire’s aftermath and involved “significant community-wide participation,” with two presentations for the Parks Advisory Board, though there was no specific vote by Council to approve the detention pond. She adds Council isn’t required to approve use of the FEMA money but an “extensive” public process did involve Council members.
But Hente wonders if the detention pond is necessary, in light of massive steel mesh nets designed to catch large debris installed by The Navigators in Queens Canyon, north of the park. The Navigators own Glen Eyrie, the mansion built by city founder Gen. William Palmer, and land around it.
Hente notes the city already built another catchment area and stabilized portions of Camp Creek, and intends to rework the 31st Street concrete canal.
Hente conveyed those concerns on behalf of the friends group in a June 7, 2018, letter to Council and Suthers, urging the city to pause and see if those steps do the trick before plowing up the garden’s meadow, which, he noted, the Rock Ledge Ranch’s master plan says should “remain in its present natural state.” The city’s plan, Hente wrote, “violates that recommendation.” He got a call from the parks director, but they simply agreed to disagree, he says. He didn’t hear from Council or the mayor.
Friends member Dan Gaskill notes in an email to group members that maintenance will bring “noisy, smelly, polluting equipment” to the park. Moreover, he says, the city’s catchment is redundant to The Navigators’ heavy screens.
In short, Gaskill calls the project “a complete waste of taxpayer money” as well as “an affront to the families that donated money so this land could be purchased and added to the [Garden of the Gods] Park.”
Friends member Pam Maier says money should be spent where most needed and not in Garden of the Gods “just because the federal officials say so.”
As Hente says, “Before we spend all this money, can we do this other stuff and see if it has the effect we want?”
After residents renewed their opposition, Councilor Don Knight asked that city staff to provide Council with an “information briefing,” tentatively set for June 24. But he tells the Indy, “I don’t see them [work crews] waiting.”
As Hente escorts a visitor to the pond site on June 12, four men wearing reflective vests survey the meadow, dotted with wood stakes to guide the imminent bulldozers.