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Red Rock blues

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The ponds at Red Rock Canyon were a refuge for waterfowl, which raised their ducklings and goslings in the shadows of the sandstone formations.

People of all ages hiked with their children or played with their dogs around the water's edge. Photographers captured the ducks and geese paddling through the reflections of the looming rocks.

Not any more.

Now the hikers, bikers, photographers, equestrians — even the dogs — go by without looking at the parched, sunken remnants of the once-vibrant habitat. The waterfowl have headed elsewhere, in search of water.

Fortunately, the open space has passionate stewards: the 400-plus members of the Friends of Red Rock Canyon group.

Coming up dry

Karl Klepfer and Christopher Jones are two of the canyon's best friends. They nurture that relationship through frequent visits to the 789-acre space south of U.S. Highway 24, between South 31st Street and the Crystal Hills neighborhood.

"When you first come here, how can you not be in awe? That doesn't ever leave," says Klepfer, FORRC president. "Just when you think you've seen it all, then you ride your bike or you hike someplace that you hadn't seen."

The group is raising money to revive the upper, southernmost pond, just southwest of the pavilion built from stone recycled from the old house that stood there.

From 1970 to 1986, a 62-acre dump and landfill were located near the southeast edge of the space. Water flowed from there into the ponds until, in 2007, the city sealed the area amid concerns about contamination. The area was covered with soil, and water flow slowed significantly over the years. The region's longtime drought has worsened the situation.

"It went from not being fed much to not being fed anything," says Jones, FORRC communications director. "The water levels have been negative the last two years."

Klepfer adds: "There are lots of reasons to provide water up here. If nothing more, to have a water source to fight a fire." Also, with little water between Fountain and Bear creeks, he worries that deer and other wildlife have to cross the highway, increasing danger for animals and humans alike.

But saving the pond won't be cheap.

"The total, one-time cost is between $150,000 and $175,000," Klepfer says. "That's a large chunk of charitable donations to go after. If we were totally responsible for that, it would take a long time."

According to Chris Lieber, Trails and Open Space program manager, the city has not yet determined the amount it will contribute. Those funds likely will come from TOPS, the dedicated funding source for parks, trails and open space. Mayor Steve Bach supports the project.

"Once we obtain the necessary permits and raise the capital funding, we would like to target late fall of 2013 for construction," Lieber says. This will minimize the impact on visitors during the warmer months.

The northernmost dam will be knocked down, and the southern one will be repaired. Mud and undergrowth will be scraped out, the "bowl" lined to prevent leakage, and soil added for vegetation along the banks. The city will pay Colorado Springs Utilities $2,000 annually to keep clean water flowing into the pond, possibly from a to-be constructed water service line from Highway 24.

Lieber says the city is providing funds and expertise for the engineering plans and will work with private contractors for the construction. The planning process is summed up in a document that stands at 269 pages and is nearing consideration by the Colorado Springs Parks and Recreation Advisory Board.

"There are all kinds of roadblocks that could be put up," Klepfer says, "but in my opinion, the city is trying to alleviate the roadblocks."

Built on a whim

For millennia, this area was a crossroads for dinosaurs, which left their imprints in the rocks, and American Indians, who sought refuge in the canyons. In the 19th century, quarry operations cut into the huge north-south ridges, mining the 240-million-year-old stone for buildings from Colorado College to Texas.

John G. Bock began the 20-year process of purchasing the land in the 1920s, and the family built a house and a garage/bomb shelter in the 1960s. Sometime that decade, a friend of Bock's did a painting of the house and used his artistic license to add a lake.

Bock loved the idea, and had his hired hands build the dams with no engineering input.

"But the dam inspector said, because of all the soil behind it, that gives them enough confidence that it's not going anywhere," Klepfer says.

At one time, a trailer park and billboards hid Red Rock Canyon's beauty, and portions faced development for condos or a golf resort. In a triumph of open-space advocates over developers, the city purchased it from Bock's heir in 2003, using TOPS funds.

FORRC will celebrate its 10th anniversary in 2013, and Klepfer and Jones can't think of a better gift than restoring the pond so that generations to come can enjoy its beauty.

"What's fun to do is just walk around here and look at the people," Jones says. "You look at their faces and they're all having a good time. It's a feel-good place."

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