Along U.S. Highway 24, Fountain Creek basically mocks nature.
It is buffered not by mountains, but by massive, shimmering gold dunes of old mine tailings. It trickles past what look like rocks, until you get closer and realize they're piles of broken cement, complete with rusty rebar pointing skyward. There's trash everywhere.
Even the sounds of the stream, and the wind in the bare cottonwoods, get overwhelmed by the screech of nearby traffic.
Yet a lot of people have high hopes for this portion of the creek so high, in fact, that they may not be achievable. At least not now.
A restoration project, which was intended to improve the creek this year, began with three partners: Bob Willard, head of the neighboring Gold Hill Mesa development; the Colorado Department of Transportation; and the city's Stormwater Enterprise. They assembled a budget of $3 million-plus and drew up plans for the portion of the creek that runs just south of the highway, approximately between 11th and 19th streets.
The goals were clear: beautify, control flooding, prevent erosion near U.S. 24, and keep old tailings out of the water. That last part was of special interest to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which is overseeing the project.
But the partners neglected another goal: to see fish frolicking.
"When did this polluted garbage dump of an area suddenly become an area for a trout habitat?" Willard asks incredulously.
Here's the thing: Because CDOT is contributing funds, state law says the Colorado Division of Wildlife must review the plan and ensure the animal environment isn't damaged. So far, the wildlife folks aren't pleased.
Neither is Jack Hunter, president of the Cheyenne Mountain chapter of Trout Unlimited, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and creating trout habitat. He says the partners ignored his organization's tips on improving the environment for fish.
Under current plans, both Hunter and Division of Wildlife representatives say, water would be too shallow for fish during warm months, while planned small waterfalls would act like barriers to fish. Rocks along the banks would leave nowhere to hide or feed.
The Division of Wildlife and Trout Unlimited argue that changes such as adding more curves to the creek could be made without sacrificing the project's other goals. Some ideas might even save money.
Changes already made, they say, aren't enough.
"They've kind of met us part of the way, 20 percent of the way," says Dave Lovell, the division's assistant regional manager. "But 20 percent doesn't buy you much."
The partners say they're making changes, but can't please everyone.
"It isn't like this is a section of the Arkansas River," Stormwater's Ken Sampley says. "We've tried to balance as many goals as we can."
On a sunny day along the creek, two ducks take a swim, mindless of the mess that surrounds them.
Staring out, Hunter says: "We don't have any expectation that this is going to be a gold-medal, blue-ribbon trout fishery. We'd like to see them not make it even worse."
Sadly for the ducks, fish and locals, the restoration may be stalled. The partners don't have approval from the state, and even with it, would need at least five weeks to bid out the project.
Meanwhile, Sampley says, the project already should be started. Sensitive willows must be planted in spring. That means if the project doesn't get off the ground soon, it may have to wait another year.