PUEBLO — As the sun beat down on the banks of muddy Fountain Creek on Friday, officials of various agencies took turns standing beside a big pile of sand.
But this wasn't just any big pile of sand. This pile was being pumped from the creek by the 30-foot High-Capacity Sediment Collector System, an unusual contraption that separates water from creek bed sediment and could provide hope for cleaning up the dirt-clogged waterway, which both connects and divides Colorado Springs and Pueblo.
Located just above the confluence of Fountain Creek and the Arkansas River, the collector is designed not only to remove clogs that contribute to flooding, but also to improve conditions for aquatic life. The 400 cubic yards a day of sandy material it removes will be used to extend the Palo Verde Trail and expand levees in Pueblo.
If it's successful during its one-year test period, others could be installed along the creek, says Larry Small, former Springs City Councilman and executive director of the Fountain Creek Watershed, Flood Control and Greenway District, which spearheaded the project. And it might help to improve relations between Pueblo and Colorado Springs.
Pueblo leaders have long complained that Springs runoff generates creek sediment and causes flooding in their city. Plus, in years past, Colorado Springs has accidentally, but repeatedly, unleashed untreated sewage into the creek.
As one condition of Pueblo County's permission to build the Southern Delivery System water pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir, Utilities agreed to allocate $50 million for creek improvements. When SDS starts delivering water in 2016, Utilities will give the money to the Watershed District, which will oversee cleaning up the creek, reshaping its banks and creating wildlife habitat, among other things.
In the meantime, funding for the $830,000 collector came from the Colorado Water Conservation Board ($225,000); the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment ($250,000); and the city and county of Pueblo, including $300,000 drawn from $2.3 million that Utilities recently gave Pueblo to dredge the creek.
The collector, dubbed the "Dirt-A-Tracter," is the Watershed District's first tangible project. The second is a detention pond in northeast Pueblo, funded with $700,000 in state and federal grants, that's to become operational in September. But the district faces $200 million worth of projects, as outlined in a soon-to-be-released long-range master plan.
"There's a lot of work that needs to be done," Small says. "That 44-mile corridor is in pretty bad shape."
He notes the district has authority to levy up to 5 mills in property tax, with approval of voters in both El Paso and Pueblo counties, but any ballot measure would be years away. The district also can impose fees, but there's no talk of doing so within the 692-square-mile watershed. As Small says: "You know how successful the stormwater fee was in Colorado Springs." (The city's Stormwater Enterprise was dismantled following a 2009 ballot measure.)
The district also is trying to get all communities within the watershed to adopt common drainage criteria for how land is developed and how water is channeled. Small says such rules haven't been upgraded for 50 years. "What were best management practices are no longer considered good ideas," he says.
One of the biggest critics of the Springs' contribution to the creek's poor conditions, Jane Rhodes, now sits on the Watershed District board. Part of a family that's long ranched land adjacent to the creek, she calls the collector "a first step."
Small says Colorado State University-Pueblo will monitor the collector system's impact on sediment and aquatic life over the next year.