City Attorney Chris Melcher has become a star in Pueblo, where a remark he uttered in spring of this year has helped catalyze a renewed push to halt Colorado Springs Utilities' $1 billion Southern Delivery System water pipeline project.
At issue is a comment Melcher made to Colorado Springs City Councilors — that the city is obligated to pay $13 million to $15 million a year on stormwater maintenance and projects, and that the city is not meeting those obligations. The sound bite found its way to the Pueblo Chieftain, which has long opposed SDS and has seized on the remark as evidence that Utilities is violating SDS permit stipulations.
The Chieftain's recent spate of stories has emboldened the similarly leaning Pueblo County Commissioners and the board of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, both of which say the Springs' funding of stormwater has been inadequate for years — and both of which were disappointed when Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach only added $2 million to city stormwater funding this year.
The Lower Arkansas board has gone so far as to send letters in August to the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which issued environmental approvals for SDS, asking for further review. One Bureau commissioner has publicly voiced his support for more study.
This has all boded badly for Utilities, which has long maintained that its permits — which include no dollar figure — do not require any spending threshold the city must meet.
But now, surprisingly, Melcher seems to see it the way Utilities has.
In response to questions last week, city spokesperson Cindy Aubrey stated in an e-mail: "Chris Melcher tells me he has never said that the City was 'required' in a legal sense to spend these monies. He was only quoting the Stormwater Department opinion that this level of expenditures was 'required' in the operations meaning of the word in order to repair and maintain the stormwater infrastructure at adequate levels."
Melcher hasn't called to clear up the confusion with the Chieftain, though, reporter Chris Woodka confirms.
Interestingly, at the same time Pueblo has used Melcher's statements to pressure the Springs on the stormwater issue, Mayor Steve Bach has pressured Utilities to cover a large part of yearly expenses for city-owned stormwater infrastructure.
"In my opinion Utilities is a stakeholder in this, as we are," Bach said at the Oct. 1 city budget unveiling. "And Utilities is a stakeholder for two reasons. One, they entered into the Southern Delivery System agreements, that stipulated that Colorado Springs would be in compliance with stormwater requirements. More importantly, Colorado Springs Utilities is pumping that water up here through the Southern Delivery System, and then returning that flow back down Fountain Creek. "
To be clear, Utilities is not obligated (and in fact is legally prohibited) to pay for the city's existing stormwater repairs, unless it serves the purpose of protecting its own infrastructure. (Utilities has added $13 million to protect its infrastructure from stormwater this year, much of it due to erosion from the Waldo Canyon burn scar.) It has kept up with its environmental responsibilities in regard to SDS, is not in violation of any permit, and has a plan in place to mitigate added flows stemming from the project.
Kara Lamb, spokesperson for the Bureau of Reclamation, tells the Independent that the Bureau has responded to the Lower Arkansas board's letters, explaining that Utilities is not currently out of compliance.
But there is a kernel of truth in Pueblo's complaints. Lamb notes that guidelines for water quality and quantity in Fountain Creek were agreed to as a part of SDS permitting. Those must continue to be met somehow — or a mediation process would start that could put the permits in jeopardy.
"These are the commitments the participants said they'd meet," she says. "How they meet them is up to them."