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Can't stop the rain 

When 5 inches of rain fell on Sept. 14, gushing water wiped out jetties on Jimmy Camp Creek on Colorado Springs' east side. In some places, Sand Creek's bottom dropped 10 feet.

Farther south, drainage from all over the region poured into Fountain Creek, carving away its already-eroded banks. By the time that water reached Pueblo, it was flooding hundreds of acres of farmland owned by Jane Rhodes and others.

"It was rolling," says Rhodes, who ranches in the Piñon area east of Interstate 25. "And, oh, the sediment. We had probably a 5-foot bank of sediment."

And that was only a 10-year storm, says Larry Small, the former Springs vice mayor who now manages the Fountain Creek Watershed, Flood Control and Greenway District.

That September deluge provided the latest evidence of the need to control stormwater runoff. The question is how, considering the backlog of projects in the Springs alone amounts to as much as $500 million, and efforts to collect the now-defunct stormwater fee have been a nightmare.

Small believes the first step is overseeing a study to identify the region's drainage costs and funding options. It's funded by Colorado Springs Utilities ($20,000), El Paso County ($10,000) and the Pikes Peak Regional Water Authority ($7,500), a coalition of water users outside the city.

"I think we have to get this study put together first," Small says, "and then get the governments together in the region and say, 'How do we want to tackle this, and how do we tell people the benefits?'"

Risking damage

Started in May and due in December, the study is being conducted by Mike Anderson, the former assistant city manager who now works for research firm Summit Economics.

Small says the study will quantify costs regionally (including Pueblo County), report timeframes for building projects, and suggest funding mechanisms, such as a stormwater authority that might rely on property taxes over a wide area, possibly two counties.

"We have a huge unmet need for floodwater control in the region," Small says, adding that another driver is the Environmental Protection Agency, whose regulations raise the bar on runoff quality and carry threats of "pretty horrendous fines."

"As development continues," he adds, "we risk more flood damage to all of our communities if we don't deal with it."

Lisa Ross, the city's acting stormwater manager, says the EPA is getting tougher on pollutants and monitoring. She encourages flood-control projects such as detention ponds that allow pollutants to drop out of the water before flowing to creeks.

Colorado Springs Council President Scott Hente hasn't been aware of the study, but says he supports any effort to deal with the "hugely important" stormwater problem.

"We have a $300 [million] to $500 million backlog of stormwater repairs of infrastructure, and that dollar figure is only going to grow on a year-to-year basis," he says. "The community at some point has got to figure out how they're going to pay for that, because you can't let it go unchecked forever."

Not only that, but the city made promises to Pueblo about controlling stormwater to gain support for the Southern Delivery System water pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir.

Utilities joined the study because the city-owned enterprise wants to protect its $147 million investment in sewage system improvements, including numerous creek crossings.

PR problem

Stormwater has always been a loser. In 2005, City Council, in part to placate Pueblo, formed the Stormwater Enterprise and followed in 2007 with fees levied on all property owners. Many refused to pay the "rain tax," and the city has had trouble collecting since. The enterprise was dismantled in 2009.

Collection letters, court judgments and "till taps," wherein deputies seize money from businesses in satisfaction of court orders have only brought ill will. Councilors are expected to certify a list of stormwater accounts for the county treasurer by Nov. 17. According to Hente, that list will not include any accounts of less than $20, or accounts from properties sold since Jan. 1, 2010.

As a Council member from 2003 to 2011, Darryl Glenn opposed the stormwater fee because it was confined to the city. As a commissioner, he's pushing the regional approach and encouraging the county to help fund the study. Glenn says the city's pursuit of bills as small as $10 has hindered efforts to educate people about the importance of flood control.

"There is a connection between stormwater and water," he says. "If you're looking at it from a strategic level and you want to bring jobs, and it's a tourism destination, one key is to have a reliable source of water. If you don't have a stormwater system, it has a dramatic impact downstream and impacts your ability to have water for a quality of life."

Rhodes' quality of life suffers every time it rains hard upstream. For more than 50 years, she's measured growth in Colorado Springs and Fountain by the rising creek flows.

"Every time we get a flood, it just more and more and more eats that area up," she says. "We lost 20 acres in the 1999 flood. It's plenty frustrating."

zubeck@csindy.com

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