Fountain Creek is the proverbial open sore when it comes to Colorado Springs' relationship with Pueblo. Repeated sewage spills and uncontrolled flooding into the creek have the Springs' southern neighbors demanding relief.
Despite recent efforts to mitigate the pollution, an ongoing lawsuit might force Colorado Springs into quicker action.
In 2005, the Sierra Club filed suit against the city of Colorado Springs for violating the federal Clean Water Act. Pueblo County District Attorney Bill Thiebaut issued a similar suit, and the two were combined a year ago.
Last Friday, April 27, in Denver in U.S. District Court, the first major hearing took place in the case that could radically change the way Colorado Springs and Pueblo interact when it comes to Fountain Creek.
At issue was the question of whether Thiebaut had legal standing to bring the suit under the Clean Water Act. No district attorney in the country has taken similar action previously. Though U.S. District Judge Walker Miller didn't make a decision regarding Thiebaut, he did uphold the Sierra Club's ability to move the suit forward.
While Thiebaut and the environmental group present many of the same concerns about pollution in Fountain Creek, Thiebaut's involvement in the suit, he says, means more to the people of Pueblo.
"I believe it's my duty to protect the health of the community," he said after the hearing, as he detailed stories about the polluted creek and its surrounding trails.
"People don't take their dogs along the trail. People don't ride their bikes around it. One professor who had taken a class there no longer does because of the dangers involved. There's nothing to study.
"Where does a community turn?" he continued. "We live under constant apprehension [of another spill]."
Thiebaut conceded his inclusion might mean more power for Pueblo when it comes to negotiating water issues with Colorado Springs "If it comes with some leverage, I welcome that," he said but it's not his focus.
Colorado Springs, for its part, argued that the suit is unnecessary. The city already is paying $400,000 in fees, as well as other penalties, to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for its sewage spills.
"The condition of Fountain Creek, even with no sewage releases, would still be a condition unsafe for the kind of recreation that the Sierra Club members do," the city's attorney, John Walsh, said at the hearing.
But Sierra Club attorney Eric Huber said the penalties are "not getting the job done."
Added Ross Vincent, a Sierra Club volunteer, after the hearing: "I have a hard time understanding why the city feels compelled to argue that what they have done is OK."
As the suit advances, some entities in the region have looked to create other solutions. Colorado Springs recently imposed a stormwater fee to fund repairs on its outdated pipe system. Stormwater runoff often floods Fountain Creek, rupturing sewage pipes and causing spills.
The Fountain Creek Vision Task Force has also formed to initiate dialogue about the creek. Made up mostly of Colorado Springs and Pueblo leaders, the task force has studied past initiatives involving the creek.
But Vincent says that for all its good intentions, the task force will be "wasting our time" if Colorado Springs continues leaking sewage into Fountain Creek.
"Everything we want to do," he said, "starts with clean water."
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