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Following our follies 

Collaborative Creek Week calls communities to clean their waterways

click to enlarge Trash deposits alongside Fountain Creek in Pueblo, where high stormwater events force the stream bed to meander as large sediment volumes accumulate. - COURTESY PUEBLO CITY-COUNTY HEALTH DEPARTMENT
  • Courtesy Pueblo City-County Health Department
  • Trash deposits alongside Fountain Creek in Pueblo, where high stormwater events force the stream bed to meander as large sediment volumes accumulate.

Aboard the International Space Station, American astronauts drink recycled urine to stay hydrated. Their Russian counterparts, however, will have none of it, according to a recent article in the Guardian. Properly treated or not, and said to be perfectly palatable by one cosmic cupper, a pint of once-was-pee-pee just isn't for everybody. (Fair enough, comrades.)

But drinking urine is actually a very American thing to do, even here atop the water chain in Colorado, with our abundant headwaters springing up along the Continental Divide. (See thegreatdividefilm.com, with a tour currently underway and a DVD scheduled for release at the end of the month.)

In fact, multiple municipalities downstream from Colorado Springs do it all the time. Sewage treatment plants release treated wastewater back into waterways where communities down the line pull, re-treat, glug and flush — over and over again.

Our mellow yellow unites us. But it also divides us.

When it comes to waterways like Fountain Creek, other types of waste wreak similarly divisive havoc.

The ongoing tension between Colorado Springs and Pueblo has less to do with pee and more to do with stormwater events. In just one of those a decade ago, more than 300,000 gallons of untreated sewage headed downstream from the Springs.

Also, there are concerns of potentially exacerbating flows once the Southern Delivery System comes online. When the Springs floods, Pueblo receives significant debris downstream, such as uprooted trees, which become threats to bridges and roadways

E. coli. bacteria, too, poses a problem. So does trash. Lots of it.

Let's start there, where the Creek Week volunteer cleanup effort connects the Fountain's communities for the greater good.

click to enlarge Trash deposits alongside Fountain Creek in Pueblo, where high stormwater events force the stream bed to meander as large sediment volumes accumulate. - COURTESY PUEBLO CITY-COUNTY HEALTH DEPARTMENT
  • Courtesy Pueblo City-County Health Department
  • Trash deposits alongside Fountain Creek in Pueblo, where high stormwater events force the stream bed to meander as large sediment volumes accumulate.

Refrigerators, shopping carts, plastic bottles and bags, discarded clothing — all are items that commonly clog the Fountain Creek Watershed, a 927-square-mile area between Woodland Park, Palmer Lake and Monument that flows southward to a confluence with the Arkansas River in Pueblo.

To be truly responsible about the matter, you might think of this area as FCW project manager for Colorado Springs Utilities, Allison Plute, does: the beginning of a waterway that runs through 200 other cities before reaching the Gulf of Mexico.

Plute is a coordinator of the Creek Week volunteer trash pickup at month's end, which includes seven major municipalities across three counties and ties into the Ocean Conservancy International Coastal Cleanup. Last year, 625 Creek Week volunteers plucked 840 bags of trash, almost 7 tons, from FCW embankments and stream beds.

The detritus functions not just as an eyesore and embarrassment, but also as a public safety risk, a public health concern, and an ongoing threat to wildlife, fragile wetlands and farmland.

"Creek Week is a way for people to put a foot in the water, no pun intended, to get them to a park, to see that there's an issue out here, and that 'I can be part of the solution,'" says Plute. "Maybe someone participates for half an hour this year, and then adopts a stretch of water to clean more than once a year."

She notes that debris can collide with infrastructure, costing CSU ratepayers more to fix. CSU also occasionally pulls drinking water from area drainages along Fountain Creek (in addition to the water it pipes in), meaning the cleaner the creek, the less treatment is needed and the lower the cost for treatement, as well.

"No question about it, we need to clean our waterways," says Larry Small, executive director for the collaborative Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District, founded in April 2009.

Small, who served on Colorado Springs City Council from 1991 to 1993 and 2003 to 2011, was on the task force that pushed for legislation to form the FCW district. He too wants citizens to look toward continuous clean-out — a good project for civic clubs and groups to take on — versus thinking about our vital waterways just once a year.

It's like the make-every-day-Earth-Day sentiment, but Small also wants people to "get back to stream-side recreation," he says. "We want people to benefit from [the waterways] and become familiar with them, not be afraid of them."

The fear of which Larry Small speaks may have something to do with the ongoing monitoring of excessive E. coli levels (above 126 E. coli bacteria per 100 ml. in a 30-day average) along several stretches of Fountain Creek, mostly during warm months. Segments that remain on the "impaired waters and monitoring and evaluation list" maintained by the state Water Quality Control Commission include: Bijou Street to Janitell Road; tributaries above Monument Creek; and within and upstream of Manitou Springs.

This fecal contamination might be nothing compared to the EPA's recent spill of urine-yellow mining waste into the Animas River. Still, ever since Jack in the Box inadvertently killed four kids and hospitalized 171 people in the early '90s via a food-borne E. coli outbreak from undercooked, contaminated beef, the world has shuddered at the name of the nasty bacteria. (So much for carefree summer soaks in the creek.)

According to a 2007-08 U.S. Geological Survey report, the last time an extensive study was undertaken, microbial source-tracking ruled out human- and pet-caused contamination as the main E. coli source. Instead, according to Rich Muzzy, environmental program manager for the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments, it ultimately pointed a finger at birds, including groups of pigeons roosting under bridges and buildings in Manitou Springs, as well as other avian species downstream.

In response, the state sets a "total maximum daily load" limit on E. coli and issues best management practices to steer readings back into compliance, while addressing the source of contaminants with such things as bird spikes to discourage roosting in certain areas.

"If we found that septic systems were leeching," says Muzzy, "we'd address what's causing that leak. It all depends on what the sources are."

That said, efforts continue to limit human sources of contamination through education and engagement, hence scoop-the-poop campaigns (yes, pet waste technically, but humans have to pick it up) and outreach to stream-side homeless camps.

Joni Nuttle of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment says once E. coli enters a waterway, "we don't know of any direct treatments."

As bacteria, E. coli have short life cycles, she says, but they reproduce rapidly. While some studies show E. coli reproducing in the wild, others don't, which may mean they're strain-specific (our intestines naturally host a strain that helps absorb vitamins) and likely means they're temperature-dependent.

Freezes won't kill E. coli, so there isn't any sort of winter reset, but readings are likely lower during cold months due to lower water flow and fewer environmentally advantageous situations for bacteria to bloom. More water with spring's arrival brings drainage from across all 900-plus square miles of the watershed, as do storm surges, which wash more contaminants into waterways.

Should you be scared? Nobody's asking anyone to drink Fountain Creek water (à la Governor Hickenlooper's drinking of fracking fluid) to prove anything here, but Small and Muzzy both say they'd recreate in the Fountain. And the general consensus seems to lean toward an information strategy akin to educating the public about the likely presence of giardia in wildlife-contaminated (but otherwise pristine) water in wilderness areas: Take your dip, just not a sip.

Sarah Joseph of the Pueblo County Health Department advises people to simply "wash their hands or areas of skin and clothing that is exposed to raw water," post soak, swim or dip.

If conditions were to deteriorate significantly, expect El Paso County to issue an advisory for elevated E. coli levels, among other contaminants, similar to what Denver Environmental Health has done in recent years at Confluence Park, a popular swim and kayak spot on the South Platte River.

click to enlarge Creek Week volunteers found no shortage of trash and debris in 2014. - VINCE CLOWARD
  • Vince Cloward
  • Creek Week volunteers found no shortage of trash and debris in 2014.

Eying stormwater as the culprit in contamination — as the vehicle for moving our waste — let's return to the divide between Colorado Springs and Pueblo to examine the (not always) neighborly connection between communities on the headwaters and those downstream.

Pueblo County Commissioner Terry Hart, a Creek Week Pueblo-area liaison, describes a scene along U.S. Hwy. 47, on the city's eastern edge, where stormwater has taken a noticeable toll.

"A meandering stream has ripped out a huge bed that's maybe 10 times greater than it used to be," Hart explains. "It tore out fully mature trees. You see their carcasses lying all over. ... It deposited in the riverway and in bridge abutments. ... There's sediment building up in the waterway, increasing the likelihood of flooding."

Hart cites a recent study by an engineering group that shows problems beginning back in the 1980s, when growth and development in the Springs began sending more debris and sediment downstream, long before recent fires in El Paso County exacerbated the issue. That development left fewer permeable surfaces for runoff.

When the switch for the Southern Delivery System is flipped on, Hart says, it will only "magnify the problem." Which is why Pueblo County officials remain in direct discussions with Mayor John Suthers and members of Colorado Springs City Council.

For his part, Hart would have liked to see Springs voters pass last year's 1B ballot measure to fund stormwater control — it would have cost the average homeowner $7.70 a month, said proponents — and he believes an ultimate solution will require that kind of sacrifice.

Pueblo County officials have been threatening litigation against the Springs for the past couple years, Hart says: Before Pueblo will "sign off to turn the water on," officials there want to ensure the Springs meets the stormwater-related conditions in the SDS permit.

Earlier this year, Hart's staff argued they had substantive evidence to move forward with a lawsuit against Colorado Springs. Instead, they stayed the course to provide time for the newly elected mayor and members of Springs' Council to consider the issues.

"So far conversations have been very good," Hart says. "They've indicated that they want to step up to the plate and recognize that it's a problem we need to resolve, with dedicated funding. It's all we've been asking for, but the devil's in the details."

The latest deadline for resolution expired, and a new one has been set for mid-October. Meanwhile, Hart says, "Creek Week is a beautiful demonstration of our two communities working together for a common cause."

Who knows? Maybe the Russian astronauts will see us from space and decide to raise a recycled glass to toast with the Americans: "To pee and prosperity."

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