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Pueblo vows action after big sewage spills flow its way

click to enlarge Muddy Fountain Creek, at right, entering the relatively - clean Arkansas River. - JOHN SUHAY
  • John Suhay
  • Muddy Fountain Creek, at right, entering the relatively clean Arkansas River.

Pueblo officials were in a frothing rage last week after they learned the extent of Colorado Springs' sewage system failure during last month's deadly flooding.

"You guys are shitting all over us," said Pueblo City Council President Bob Schilling in a telephone interview. "This has to stop."

Colorado Springs' sewage system spilled more than 317,000 gallons of untreated sewage water last month. Pueblo's council decided last week to consider every option available to force the Springs to improve its sewage system, including a lawsuit.

Schilling reported having a testy conversation with Colorado Springs Mayor Lionel Rivera after that decision. In that conversation, he told Rivera he wasn't trying to be a "big prick" by raising a ruckus over the spills. He said Rivera responded by saying, "You're probably not a big prick. You're probably a little prick."

"He probably shouldn't have said that to me," Schilling said.

Rivera, reached by telephone, said he could not recall making those comments, but he did not deny them.

Unauthorized spilling of raw sewage is illegal under state law, due to the nasty environmental disasters and potentially fatal health hazards it creates.

The muddy Fountain

During the flood that overwhelmed Colorado Springs on June 21, sewage pipes burst in two places, spewing hundreds of thousands of gallons of wastewater into waterways leading to Fountain Creek and down to Pueblo.

It was the third major spill in two months and came on the heels of a 26,400-gallon spill in May. In a wet 2005, Colorado Springs has seen about 30 times more sewage spilled than in all of last year, according to Colorado Springs Utilities data.

Sewage spills into Fountain Creek enrage Pueblo-area citizens, who say Colorado Springs' explosive growth already has turned their creek into a muddy, polluted and flood-prone river.

"Every time [spills] happen, it just exacerbates the situation with flooding and pollution," said Pueblo Chieftain publisher Bob Rawlings, a frequent critic of Colorado Springs Utilities.

Spills part of system

Being in trouble for sewage spills is nothing new for Colorado Springs. The state's Department of Health and Environment slapped the city with an enforcement action two years ago mandating the city improve its system by 2012. Noncompliance could result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, in addition to the maximum $10,000 fine for each day a spill continues.

Despite last month's big spills, Colorado Springs officials say they have made steady progress in meeting the requirements of that enforcement action. Howard Roitman, director of environmental programs for the Department of Health and Environment, backs that up.

"They've met all the milestones so far," he said. "You're always going to have spills from utilities. The goal can't be 100 percent non-spills."

But plenty of critics in Pueblo, on the receiving end of Colorado Springs' sometimes-foul waters, find a lot of room for improvement.

According to data provided by the city of Pueblo, that city's sewage system has released only 63,300 gallons of untreated wastewater since 2000, compared to more than 1 million gallons in Colorado Springs during the same period. The real ugly spills occurred in the spring of 1999, when almost 72 million gallons of sewage water escaped Colorado Springs' system.

The huge difference between Colorado Springs and Pueblo spills is explained partly by the size and nature of each system. While the bulk of Colorado Springs sewage overflows end up in streams, Pueblo's are forced up through manholes, where they're easier to detect and treat with sanitizing agents.

"I'd rather have it the way we have it," said Gene Michael, Pueblo city's wastewater director. "The only way you know about sewer overflows [in Colorado Springs] is if someone sees it and reports it."

Colorado Springs sewage woes are made worse by flood control problems brought on by years of neglect. From 1997 until last year, the city did not budget for storm drainage system repair and now faces a $298 million repair backlog.

Those costs may rise due to last month's destructive floods that crinkled concrete and killed two boys. Poor flood control also undermines Colorado Springs Utilities efforts because any sewage system upgrades, such as construction of barriers that separate sewage pipes from streams, could be destroyed by floods.

"If we don't address the storm water issue," said Utilities spokesman Steve Berry, "we even put that new work in jeopardy."

Saving Face

Colorado Springs officials maintain that Pueblo is exerting so much political pressure because of public scorn there over the cities' alliance regarding the proposed $1 billion Southern Delivery System. SDS, if built, will double Colorado Springs' available water supply by pumping water north from the Arkansas River near Pueblo.

In 1999, when huge sewage spills were flowing down Fountain Creek toward Pueblo, there wasn't as huge an outcry, notes Colorado Springs Councilwoman Margaret Radford.

"Back then, there was no such things as the [intergovernmental agreements] and Southern Delivery," she said.

The unpopularity of SDS has taken a toll on its supporters on Pueblo's council, Schilling said.

He consistently has supported SDS, and last month's spills make him feel betrayed by Colorado Springs. To save face and force accountability, Schilling wants to bring Colorado Springs City Council and CSU representatives to Pueblo for a televised session to answer angry questions.

"You get to feel like a battered wife," he said. "I'm not going to be a battered wife."

-- Dan Wilcock

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