April 27 is the red-letter day for which Colorado Springs Utilities has waited at least 15 years. But now nobody wants to talk about it.
Mayor John Suthers refuses to discuss it. So do the three Pueblo County commissioners.
The taboo topic? Activation of the long-awaited, $825 million Southern Delivery System pipeline that will pump 50 million gallons of water a day from Pueblo Reservoir.
At issue is a rift between Colorado Springs and Pueblo County over the city's stormwater management, or lack thereof. The city agreed to control drainage, which ultimately flows down Fountain Creek to Pueblo, as part of the so-called 1041 construction permit issued by Pueblo County in 2009. But it hasn't done so.
Now, only weeks before SDS is turned on, Pueblo County says in a March 11 letter to the Bureau of Reclamation it might suspend the permit unless "enforceable" guarantees for stormwater control are incorporated into a pending intergovernment agreement.
Whether Pueblo County can stop water from flowing through the pipeline is in question, but Pueblo County officials hope their long-standing complaints to the bureau over stormwater eventually get traction.
Bureau spokesman Buck Feist tells the Independent that suspending SDS "is unnecessary" now, because progress is being made in complying with various SDS requirements. But he notes the bureau has authority to stop the project if the city fails to meet requirements of the Bureau of Reclamation's 2009 Record of Decision, and that includes contracts with others, such as the 1041.
Months ago, Suthers and City Council vowed to spend $19 million annually on stormwater needs, but that apparently hasn't satisfied Pueblo County. In an early March interview with the Gazette, Suthers bemoaned Pueblo County's refusal to accept the city's new offer to spend $445 million over 20 years on drainage, an average of $22.5 million per year.
"Man, we put everything on the table," Suthers told the newspaper.
Since then, Suthers has clammed up on that topic, as well as a related issue — the Environmental Protection Agency's findings, in 2013 and again in 2015, that the city violated its federal stormwater discharge permit conditions.
"We are unable to discuss either matter at present due to the pending nature of both the EPA investigation and the continuing discussions with Pueblo," Suthers' communications manager Jamie Fabos says via email. She also noted no information will be released "until we have a result to share with our stakeholders and residents."
In response to a Colorado Open Records Act request for correspondence with Pueblo County about the IGA, the city claims there were no responsive records, which suggests negotiations are verbal.
The city withheld its communications with the EPA and Justice Department, citing a CORA exemption for documents subject to a court order or Supreme Court rule. While the Indy couldn't find a lawsuit involving the EPA violations, a court decree could be issued mandating that the city deal with stormwater problems.
But that might be "several months" away, with Department of Justice spokesperson Wyn Hornbuckle saying via email the negotiations are in the "early stages."
Meantime, Pueblo County commissioners can't comment, because the 1041 permitting process is a quasi-judicial function, barring them from making public statements ahead of a hearing, a county spokesman says.
Pueblo County, though, has documented the city's failed stormwater system for years in letters to the Bureau of Reclamation. In a March 11 letter, the county noted that "negotiations on a proposed IGA continue to progress," but added that "absent an enforceable IGA" that would address inadequate stormwater controls, county staff is "likely" to recommend county commissioners "temporarily suspend commercial operations of the SDS" and perhaps suspend or amend the 1041 permanently.
That's the last thing Colorado Springs needs, because a noncompliance finding could impact its deals with the bureau to use Pueblo Reservoir. As Feist says via email, "Contracts between Reclamation and SDS participants do provide the bureau with the authority to immediately cease storage or conveyance of water until the commitments are implemented, if such action becomes warranted."
Feist also says the law allows the Bureau of Reclamation to reopen the Environmental Impact Statement for SDS in certain circumstances.
As those issues loom, Colorado Springs needs to turn on the tap to test the new water treatment plant within designated warranty periods, says SDS project director John Fredell. Also, at least one SDS partner, Pueblo West, is using SDS on an emergency basis and needs regular deliveries as soon as possible, he says.
Asked if he plans to stick to the April 27 date, Fredell says, "I'm planning on it." Asked if it will pose a hardship to the city if the pipeline isn't activated on that date, he says, "It depends on how things shake out with our other systems." He didn't elaborate.
Among Pueblo County's other complaints cited in the March letter is concern over Utilities' Fountain Creek wetlands project. Completed in 2014 at a cost of $4.2 million, the project stabilized the creek's banks and installed flora to improve water quality and to prevent erosion and reduce sediment washing down the creek to Pueblo.
But heavy rains and high creek flows last year disrupted the wetlands. While Fredell calls the project "a total success" for its boulder-laden banks' withstanding the flows, it did get "beat up."
"There was 20,000 CFS [cubic feet per second of water] in that storm," he says. "It did get banged up, and there was a lot of sediment" jarred that filled the area. The project was designed to withstand 15,000 CFS.
Fredell estimates repairs, now underway, at $1 million, but a single wetland won't solve the creek's problems. He says at least 10 detention facilities and other improvement projects are needed to curb flooding and sediment transport.
The Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District agrees, but needs money, which is another complaint of Pueblo County and a point of contention in the IGA debate. The 1041 permit requires Utilities to pay $10 million annually for five years after the pipeline delivers water. The county contends test flows started last fall, and the first payment was due in January.
The city says the first installment isn't due until January 2017, assuming SDS is turned on this year.
It's worth noting that some other agencies with a stake in SDS — including El Paso County, Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, city of Fountain, Security Water and Sanitation Districts and Colorado Parks and Wildlife — have expressed no issues to the Bureau of Reclamation about Utilities' permit and contract compliance.
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