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Sewage showdown

Pueblos DA and the Sierra Club plan to sue the Springs

At right is Fountain Creek, filled with untreated sewage - courtesy of Colorado Springs, as it flows into the - Arkansas River in Pueblo. - COURTESY OF THE PUEBLO CHIEFTAIN
  • courtesy of the Pueblo Chieftain
  • At right is Fountain Creek, filled with untreated sewage courtesy of Colorado Springs, as it flows into the Arkansas River in Pueblo.

Pueblo's district attorney and a local Sierra Club chapter sent shock waves north last week when they filed a notice of intent to sue Colorado Springs for allowing sewage water to spill into Fountain Creek and flow to Pueblo.

The lawsuit threats come two months after a deadly flood snapped and exploded city wastewater pipes, sending around 318,000 gallons of untreated sewage water south down Fountain Creek to Pueblo.

"I determined that these were illegal acts," Pueblo District Attorney Bill Thiebaut said of the spills.

Since 2000, city-owned Colorado Springs Utilities has spilled more than 1 million gallons of sewage water. Any sewage spill into a waterway is a violation of state law and the federal Clean Water Act. The lawsuits could force the city to improve CSU's sewage system and could levy large fines against Colorado Springs.

"Spills like the ones that happened don't happen by accident," said Ross Vincent, spokesman for the Sierra Club's Sangre de Cristo Group.

CSU spokesman Steve Berry rejected that claim.

"I think they'd have a hard case to say we've been negligent," he said.

Berry added that no sewage system, including Pueblo's, is perfect, and that Colorado Springs fares better than most cities in the country when it comes to spills.

No money for repairs

If Colorado Springs has been negligent, Berry and other city officials say, it is because from 1997 until 2004 there was no funding for flood control projects that could have prevented the recent spills.

The city now faces the dilemma of whether to create a "storm water enterprise" that would impose fees on every homeowner and business. Such fees would be based on the total area of water-resistant surfaces -- such as pavement or rooftops -- on properties.

"Look at all the cities along the Front Range," said Colorado Springs Councilman Scott Hente. "Who's the only city without a storm water enterprise?"

The answer is Colorado Springs, and the money that such an enterprise would raise could help tackle the city's current $298 million backlog in needed storm drainage repairs.

Do the crime, do the time

CSU plans to spend at least $50 million this decade upgrading its sewage system, and $250 million by 2025. But promises to spend more money don't make up for the crime of spilling sewage, Thiebaut said.

An elected Democrat who used to serve as Senate majority leader in the Colorado legislature, Thiebaut acknowledged that some politics are behind his threat.

"I did campaign on a platform that DAs should use the civil laws as a sword," he said. "I'm following through on a campaign promise."

Thiebaut reportedly has threatened to file criminal as well as civil charges in the case. However, when asked this week to clarify the target of such criminal charges, the DA would not elaborate.

Colorado Springs leaders say the prospective lawsuits are part of the larger brouhaha over the planned $1 billion Southern Delivery System pipeline that would pump water north from the Arkansas River near Pueblo.

The Sierra Club's Vincent confirmed the SDS link, saying that CSU has "misplaced priorities" because "resources are going to [water system] expansion instead of repairing infrastructure."

-- Dan Wilcock

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