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Deadly waters

Colorado Springs in legal trouble over its lack of flood control

14-year-old Tucker Graef was swept to his death by - flooding in June.
  • 14-year-old Tucker Graef was swept to his death by flooding in June.

Inspired by Hurricane Katrina and the deadly deluge it wrought on New Orleans, Colorado Springs may be inching closer to doing something about its own lack of flood control.

"If there's anything we've learned from Katrina," says City Councilman Jerry Heimlicher, "we need to do anything we can."

By continuing to ignore a $300 million backlog in storm water system repairs, the city invites citizen deaths and makes itself the target of lawsuits.

Last week, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled that Colorado Springs resident Valerie Powell could sue the city over the death of her 5-year-old son Steven, who drowned during a 1997 flood.

Earlier this summer, both the district attorney of Pueblo and a local Sierra Club chapter announced their intentions to sue the city over sewage spills into Fountain Creek, which were brought by a June flood.

That flood also killed two boys, Tucker Graef and Kevin Carman.

A matter of time

Between 1997 and last year, the city budgeted no money for drainage repairs. With concrete drains and channels crumbling across the city, it's only a matter of time before more incidents occur.

"We know the wall of water is going to come," Heimlicher says. "We should spend the money beforehand."

But for the city to spend the money, its leaders must summon the political will to impose fees guaranteed to be unpopular.

On Sept. 20, the city's storm water task force will make recommendations to City Council, including the creation by year's end of a "storm water enterprise." The new office would collect around $20 million a year in fees based on a property owner's total area of water-resistant surfaces, such as pavement or rooftops. The average household would pay $6 a month.

Every major city along the Front Range except Colorado Springs charges this kind of fee, and Denver and Fort Collins have been doing so since 1981.

"The city doesn't want to do anything," says Van Graef, whose 14-year-old son, Tucker, died in this June's flood along with his friend, 13-year-old Kevin Carman.

Graef says his son was 5-foot-9, 180 pounds and "strong as an ox," but still was no match for the storm surge. "It was a death trap he couldn't escape."

"There's going to be someone else, eventually," he says. "We don't want this to happen to any parent."

No recourse now

But even if the Graefs wanted to sue the city over the loss of their son, a 2003 law would prevent it.

"Those people can't sue," says Glenn Pressman, an attorney for Valerie Powell.

In 2003, the state legislature passed a law that prevents citizens from suing their municipality over death or injury resulting from storm drainage problems. The law retroactively applied to Powell's case and another filed in Longmont after the 1997 floods.

Last week, the state Court of Appeals nullified the retroactive portion of that law, allowing Powell to obtain a hearing, finally, against Colorado Springs.

But the city is immune from families such as the Graefs seeking justice. As a result of the law, Pressman says, "The city has no obligation to maintain its storm drains."

-- Dan Wilcock

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