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Foul Fountain

Penalties stack up for ongoing sewage spills

Water quality in Fountain Creek may worsen for years before the situation improves.

That's because water woes in the creek that runs south through the Springs are triggered by factors beyond sewage spills, says Steve Gunderson, director of the state's Water Quality Control Commission. Those factors include the rapid expansion of Colorado Springs, which adds to runoff and pollution.

Meanwhile, sewage spills will continue as the city grapples with fixing its pipe system, which frequently intersects the creek.

"It's not just the stream crossings," he says. "You have to upgrade the whole system."

On Jan. 5, Colorado Springs Utilities workers who were trying to fix a pipe unleashed another massive spill, which dumped 44,400 gallons of untreated wastewater into Shooks Run and Fountain Creek.

The spill comes on the heels of more than 345,000 gallons of sewage spilled last year, which triggered a $130,000 penalty -- the largest ever imposed by Colorado's Department of Public Health and Environment for sewage spills.

Of that $130,000, $91,000 will go toward improving water quality in Fountain Creek.

For the most recent spill, the city-owned utility could face up to $10,000 in fines. Gunderson says Colorado Springs also will be fined for spilling partially treated "reclaimed" water from its non-potable water system in recent years.

The fines come with mandates for at least $87 million in sewage system upgrades. The utility currently plans to spend $250 million over the next 20 years on overhauling the system.

That's just not enough, says Pueblo District Attorney Bill Thiebaut, who has filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the Springs for violating the federal Clean Water Act.

"The state has failed with respect to protecting the inhabitants of Pueblo County," Thiebaut says. The $91,000 fine "doesn't go too far," he adds, toward cleaning up the mess.

-- Dan Wilcock

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