A deal is in the works to save Ruxton Creek in Manitou Springs from drying up due to the construction of a new pipeline by Colorado Springs Utilities, which owns the water in the creek.
However, the people of Manitou Springs may have to pay if they want to preserve the scenic waterway through town.
A tentative deal between the utility, the City of Manitou Springs and a neighborhood group called the Ruxton Creek Alliance has been reached and could receive final approval within weeks. It would likely involve a water trade costing the city of Manitou an estimated $6,000 to $7,000 per year.
"We are doing our best to work this out," said Manitou Mayor Marcy Morrison.
Drought sucked it dry
The talks began in the fall of 2001, when neighbors noticed water disappearing from the creek, which enters Manitou near the Pikes Peak Cog Railway and joins up with Fountain Creek downtown.
Colorado Springs Utilities, which is owned by the City of Colorado Springs, has long diverted water from the creek via a pipeline that begins just upstream of Manitou and leads to a pumping station at 33rd Street and Fountain Creek. But historically, the pipeline hasn't been big enough to take all the water, causing overflow to run down the creek. CSU has captured the overflow downstream at its pumping station.
The situation changed in 2001, when water levels dropped due to the ongoing drought, enabling CSU to funnel almost all of the water through its pipeline, thus reducing the creek to a trickle.
But even if the drought ends and water levels rise, the creek might still not return. That's because CSU is building a new, bigger pipeline.
The prospect of a permanently dried-up creek worries many in Manitou, who say the scenic waterway is important for tourism, quality of life and wildlife, and who worry about puddles of stagnant water becoming a breeding ground for mosquitoes carrying West Nile Virus.
The force of gravity
The dispute is not about water, but about money -- CSU gets all the water whether it captures it upstream or downstream. And, capturing it upstream saves money, because the utility can use the force of gravity to deliver the water, rather than pumping it.
Neighbors have asked the utility to guarantee a flow level in the creek of just one square foot per second, which they say will sustain it. But the utility has refused, saying the increased pumping cost could reach $28,000 annually.
After months of negotiations, the City of Manitou Springs is now considering purchasing that amount of water from another source -- at an annual cost of $6,000 to $7,000 -- and trading it to CSU in return for a guaranteed flow in the creek. The Manitou Springs City Council would have to approve the proposal.
Though the Ruxton Creek Alliance neighborhood group favors the deal, spokesman David Chorpenning says he's disappointed that CSU won't share the burden of saving the creek.
The utility publicly touts its commitment to "environmental stewardship" -- but when push comes to shove, it doesn't want to "subsidize" the preservation of a creek, concedes utility spokeswoman Lisa Mills.
"We don't want subsidization," Mills said. "Our community has paid for those water rights."
Chorpenning, meanwhile, says the utility should factor the cost of letting a small amount of water flow down the creek, and then pumping it to customers, into the overall cost of expanding the pipeline.
"Personally," he said, "I don't believe the City [of Manitou Springs] should have to pay."
-- Terje Langeland