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A flood plain runs through it 

Park could help or hurt watershed woes

In promoting the creekside recreation zone known as Confluence Park, city leaders and planners pushing the project have bet much of the park's success on the two waterways that converge at the site.

The meeting of Fountain and Monument creeks -- just northwest of Cimarron Street's intersection with Interstate 25 -- is the centerpiece of one of Colorado Spring's most ambitious downtown redevelopment and open-space projects.

Preliminary maps drawn up by planners show a vibrant, blue waterway coursing down from the north and the west, meeting at the southern end of a verdant park full of recreational amenities. On Fountain Creek, just upstream of the confluence, the maps even show a potential inner-tube or kayak run.

But even a brief walk down by the convergence of these overwrought urban waterways shows the city has a long way to go before these litter-choked gulches are transformed into tourist attractions.

Surrounded by highway overpasses and punctuated by urban detritus, the creeks' water-worn banks enclose a floodplain filled with trash. Large chunks of concrete leftover from 1930s flood control projects litter the creeks and their banks, along with beer bottles and other artifacts of homeless squats, discarded mattresses, industrial refuse and shopping carts.

Budgets are still preliminary, but planners say much of the project's initial $11.5 million, approved by voters during the 1999 SCIP process, will go toward cleaning up the stream bed and mitigating the effects of flooding and erosion above and below the confluence.

But not everyone is confident that the park project -- pitched largely as boosting interest in the city's downtown -- is going to help solve the chronic flooding, erosion and water-quality problems facing both waterways.

Regulators, ecologists and others concerned about water quality and flooding say they will watch the Confluence Park project carefully because, depending on how the project is completed, the park could either help solve, or worsen, those very problems.

City planners and proponents of the project say the park will help mitigate flooding problems because it will convert a mostly industrial area -- with large areas of compacted, impervious surfaces that abet runoff -- to lawns that will more readily soak up torrential rain or flood water.

The water engineer hired by the city to plan the creek cleanup, meanwhile, said he's working on plans to turn stretches of Fountain and Monument creeks above the confluence into naturalistic, man-made rapids full of granite boulders and native vegetation.

Those features will not only make the stream more attractive, said Rick McLaughlin, vice president of the McLaughlin Group, the Denver-based water engineering firm, it will help stem erosion and flooding.

"If we can create rapids or things that slow the water down, it will cut down a lot on the bank erosion," said McLaughlin, whose firm helped design the water restoration projects of Denver's Confluence Park.

"Both these creeks are very tame most of the time," he added. "But during flood events, the steep gradients and the amount of storm water flowing downstream is overpowering."

Those fast-running floods dig out tons of sand, rock and trees downstream. "So the idea is to slow down the velocity of the water as it heads downstream," McLaughlin said.

But others say the city may not be doing enough, and they worry because some key aspects of the Confluence Park project are tentatively envisioned to be built inside the area's 100-year floodplain.

Normally a low-lying flat area that sits just above a stream bed, the 100-year flood plain is a nationally recognized benchmark used to determine where building is appropriate.

In the case of Confluence Park, preliminary plans suggest a specialty restaurant is planned for the convergence of the two creeks, an area within the 100-year flood plain.

Similarly, other features upstream on Monument Creek -- a walkway that surrounds a man-made pool is one example -- also encroach into the flood plain.

City planners and local officials stress that their plans for the park are still very preliminary and that any development in the park area would have to be approved by the flood plain administrator of the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department, which enforces federal flood plain development regulations.

That administrator, Dan Bunting, said that before anything is approved in a flood plain, the city will have to show that the park's features will be both safe from potential damage and have no effect on water flows upstream or downstream.

Of the preliminary concept plans drawn up by city design teams, Bunting said he "can see a few areas where development incurs on the flood plain."

Although federal regulations don't ban all development in flood plains, they do impose additional engineering to guard against catastrophe.

Building officials tend to discourage development within flood plains however, both because it's potentially dangerous and because it tends to displace areas where water would naturally escape from the fast-running torrent heading downstream.

And that is exactly what worries some people who live downstream. Last year, a group of six landowners who suffered severe losses in the floods of April 1999 put the city on notice that they would sue if the city did not take proactive steps to reduce flood damage.

"If they do [the park] in such a way that it raises the surface topography [of the proposed park land in the flood plain], then we might have some concerns," said Malcolm "Sandy" MacDougall, the lawyer representing the downstream property owners.

Though no one recalls the area in question being flooded in recent years, placing a specialty restaurant in or near the 100-year flood plain could also displace low-lying land areas that might otherwise help absorb runaway water, he said.

Urban encroachment of flood plains throughout Colorado Springs is a critical reason his clients suffered huge losses during last year's damaging floods, which were either a 10- or 22-year storm event, depending on the location, he said.

More than money, he said, his clients want the city to curb development inside flood plains. "Whatever happens inside the flood plain is of concern to my clients," he added.

But MacDougall agrees with others who point out that the real cause of flooding and erosion starts much farther upstream, in urban and suburban developments where water runs off roofs, streets and parking lots directly into Fountain and Monument creeks.

In part to solve these problems, city and county governments along the watersheds are working on ways to cooperate on a larger solution to flooding.

Among other things, some of the region's cities require developments to build on-site detention ponds that slow down water and allow sediment to settle before it rushes into natural creeks.

Separate city projects (funded with both local and federal dollars) are designed to help mitigate storm water damage on Monument, Fountain and Sand creeks, as well as Shook's Run.

Still, some environmentalists aren't reassured.

In the rush to boost the downtown commercial sector with an urban, recreation-oriented park, they say planners may be missing an opportunity to take greater steps needed to improve water quality and help avert floods.

"I think Confluence Park represents an ideal opportunity to lessen problems of flooding caused when cities restrict flows that would otherwise meander," said Steve Harris, a local environmental lawyer who's studied the two watersheds.

"My hope is that they take that into consideration and provide some room to expand the flood plain a bit."

In other words, said Val Viers, a Colorado College physics professor who has also studied the two watersheds, return a portion of the park to a more naturalistic, wild state.

An area like this could be both beautiful and serve as a "partial wetland" that the "stream could explore a few times a year," Viers said.

The idea is not entirely new. Cities such as Tulsa, Okla., and Albuquerque, have dramatically reduced flooding problems with similar ideas. On a smaller scale, the Springs' own consultants, the McLaughlin Group, once designed a soccer field to serve as a regional detention pond in cases of flooding.

City planners say they considered the idea of a wilder park, but it's not the type of park that residents, business leaders and planners envisioned when they helped design the park during a series of public design meetings last fall.

"The driving philosophy was to create something that would draw families," said Chuck Miller, a city development group support manager who is spearheading the project. "A small minority of people [who attended the public meetings] did express the desire for a more naturalistic park, but this has always been envisioned as an urban-type park."

Whatever route the city ultimately takes, the challenges linked to resurrecting the confluence are huge, in part because they are directly linked to the health of both watersheds.

"The city has sold Confluence Park as a taking off point for the river corridors through town," noted John Valentine, an engineer with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, which lends technical support to local governments.

"But unless and until the city addresses the watershed issues within the [entire] city, then it's going to end up filling with a lot of the trash and sand and sediment [in the confluence]," he said. "It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to spend $11 million only to have it torn up after a 10-year storm."

-- Malcolm Howard

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