A gravel road just east of Interstate 25 leads to the edge of Fountain Creek about 20 miles south of Colorado Springs. There, grasses and trees border the creek, like a lot of places along the 52-mile meandering waterway that carries runoff from Colorado Springs to the Arkansas River east of Pueblo.
But this area, once a wasteland of sandbars and eroded banks, is now a bona-fide wetland, and it stands as an example of how humans can exert authority over Mother Nature — if there's the will and the money to do it.
Both came together at this 20-acre swath, and show there's hope for reshaping the often-wild creek, whose flows have long been a point of contention between Colorado Springs and Pueblo.
The project cost Colorado Springs Utilities about $4.2 million. It's one of many like it that officials say are needed to reduce flooding and erosion. The total tab? About $100 million, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
The wetland is a byproduct of Utilities' Southern Delivery System, a water pipeline being built from Pueblo Reservoir. In 2009, when the Bureau of Reclamation issued a permit for SDS, it required Utilities to replace wetlands damaged by construction of the city's outlet and pump station at Pueblo Reservoir Dam. It didn't matter where the replacement wetlands were located.
The new wetland site was chosen because the city owns the land — it's part of Clear Springs Ranch, which also hosts the Nixon Power Plant and other facilities.
Besides satisfying the wetland requirement, the project restored an ecosystem that naturally controls flooding and diminishes sediment transport downstream, says Mark Pifher, Utilities permitting manager for SDS.
"Before that," he says, "you had water rushing through there and taking farmers' fields away. If you put that meander in it and keep the water in the banks, it's obviously very much improved."
To accomplish that, contractor Wildcat Construction (of Wichita, Kansas, but with a Springs office) hauled in hundreds of tons of boulders. About 30 workers buried 27,000 rocks, 6,500 of which were the size of clothes dryers, along stream banks. Some were sunk 15 feet deep, Pifher says. "When those huge flows come," he notes, "it can't cut the bank away."
After the channel's barriers were rebuilt, a local company, Seedmasters, went to work. Owner Tim Rineholt told a gathering of officials last week during the project's dedication that his crew of 80 workers planted 150,000 willow trees, 50,000 plugs of various native grasses and plant species, and 5,000 cottonwoods.
The idea, Pifher explains, is to create man-made depressions that will fill during flood events to prevent the carving out of embankments. The plants hold the soil in place.
The project was completed this summer, and vegetation now flourishes where barren sand and dirt ridges used to be.
Utilities spokesperson Janet Rummel says it's designed to withstand a 10-year flood, with flows up to 15,000 cubic feet per second. (Normal flows of the creek are 600 to 900 cfs.) Because of the topography and a railroad trestle that spans the creek on the south side of the wetland, she says, 10-year floods can actually cause more scour of the banks than higher flows.
So far, the creek hasn't been tested by extremely high velocities of water, although an Oct. 9 all-day rain raised the flow rate to 8,280 cfs, Rummel says, adding that the project worked as designed.
Bordering the new wetland is an added amenity — four miles of newly built trail between the town of Fountain and Old Pueblo Road. It's part of the 60-mile Front Range Trail that eventually will link Colorado Springs with Pueblo.
While a big accomplishment, this project won't solve the creek's problems, says Larry Small, executive director of the Fountain Creek Watershed, Flood Control, and Greenway District.
The USGS study recommended that four wetland areas be created along the creek, as well as at least 10 detention ponds — six in north Pueblo County and four in El Paso County — that would fill during flood stages and gradually empty as water recedes, Small says. The idea is to create holding capacity for up to 1.6 billion gallons of water. That's the equivalent of more than 5 percent of the water delivered to Springs Utilities' customers annually. Pifher notes the USGS study showed the ponds would reduce the creek's peak flows on the creek through Pueblo by 50 percent, "a huge benefit," he says.
But each pond is estimated to cost roughly $5 million, Small says, which doesn't include land acquisition and maintenance.
Half of the necessary $100 million will come from Utilities; a Pueblo County construction permit requires Utilities to give $50 million to the district in five annual installments after the pipeline becomes functional in 2016.
Until then, Small says, the district will continue to rely on grants and a total of $46,000 from member governments, such as the city, El Paso and Pueblo counties. A $189,000 grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Small says, was used to restore 485 feet of eroding bank just south of the new wetland area.
Pifher says Utilities and other SDS partners, among them Fountain, Security and Pueblo West, plan to pony up money toward another study to plot sites for holding ponds so that "once SDS is turned on, they'd be that much farther along."
But in the end, the district comes up short, leading Small to say it's apt to turn to voters, possibly in both El Paso and Pueblo counties, for a tax increase several years from now. "It's going to be hard to tell people we need another levy for creek restoration activities," he says, especially in light of a regional stormwater fee on the Nov. 4 ballot that's being billed as the answer to flooding issues.
Wetlands and detention ponds along Fountain Creek aren't included in the regional stormwater ballot measure. But advocate Kevin Walker says, "Any investment we can make in the Fountain Creek Watershed will improve the situation downstream."