In spring 2009, lawmakers enacted legislation that enabled creation of the Fountain Creek Watershed Drainage, Flood Control and Greenway District.
The goal of the district, overseen by nine board members representing multiple government agencies, is to transform the creek from a polluted and at times raging destructive force into a healthy ecosystem with wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities. Top priorities are curtailing erosion, sediment buildup and unpredictable flooding.
While the district has limped along for seven years with more hopes than funding, now it's flexing some muscle after an injection of $10 million from Colorado Springs Utilities. It was the first of five such payments through 2020 that are part of the city's deal with Pueblo County for the city's Southern Delivery System pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir, completed in April.
But so much needs to be done that the money quickly will be absorbed into a long list of projects, leaving the district, again, penniless.
"What we're going to find out is that $50 million is much less than what we need for that project list," says district executive director Larry Small, former Springs vice mayor.
The district has conducted a host of studies over the years and done a few projects, including sediment reduction near the confluence of Fountain Creek and the Arkansas River east of downtown Pueblo. Thus far, its projects have been largely funded through grants from such agencies as the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Now, with the Utilities money, it wants to take on the herculean task of trying to reshape the creek.
First up is a bank restoration project along the Masciantonio Trust farm just south of the El Paso County-Pueblo County line where, over the years, the creek's rushing waters have carved away a massive amount of land, leaving sand bars behind and sending tons of sediment down the creek every year.
"The creek has seriously eroded the bank there," Small says. "It's taken 12 acres of farm land."
The project's engineering study was launched in July, and a construction contract will be awarded next year, he says, with a budget of $2.5 million.
It's unclear if the project actually will restore those 12 acres, because that would require a huge amount of fill material, Small says.
"We are looking at an option to restore the creek to the 1955 channel," he says, "but we have to figure out how to deal with the hole that would leave behind the wall we would have to build."
The problem, he adds, is that Young's Hollow flows into the creek at that point and can carry a water flow of up to 6,000 cubic feet per second during heavy storms, so the creek has to be equipped to handle that volume.
"This is a challenge," he says.
Two more projects for the farm also are planned, he says, noting, "That whole 4-mile stretch is seriously eroded."
Another project will assess stability and sediment along the entire 51 miles of the creek from Colorado Springs to its confluence with the Arkansas.
"That's going to generate a project list where we need to do bank restoration," Small says. Started in May this year, the study will wind up in March and be followed by an evaluation of flood control alternatives, which includes a dam.
That study, also started in May, will address how much land would be required, how a dam would function, what property the district would need to acquire and what permitting processes would be necessary, among other things.
This month, the district began compiling a drainage criteria manual, which will enable the board to evaluate development that takes place within the district and recommend requirements to the jurisdictions at issue, such as city of Fountain, city of Colorado Springs, Pueblo County or El Paso County.
So as Small says, the district has quickly picked up the pace this year.
"As I told some people recently, on May 31, I had one project, and on June 1, I had five projects," he says.
The biggest single project undertaken by the district so far is dredging the levees east of Pueblo at a total cost of $5.25 million. Funded with additional money from Springs Utilities, Pueblo County and Pueblo's stormwater enterprise fund, the project will be overseen by the Fountain Creek district, which also will loan $1.25 million to Pueblo to be repaid in 2018, Small says.
The project will begin this year — the district hopes to let the contract this fall — and be finished next year, if all parties sign off on the plan, which is expected, he says. The dredging will start at 18th Street and extend to the creek's confluence with the river. The job will include removing vegetation and two railroad piers that act as debris traps.
The source of money for projects when the $50 million from Springs Utilities runs out isn't clear. Small says the board, in coming years, will start researching a ballot measure for a property tax to fund the district. Even after all the projects are built, money will be needed for maintenance, he says.
The district covers all of El Paso and Pueblo counties. One mill would generate roughly $6.85 million from El Paso County taxpayers and $1.6 million from Pueblo County taxpayers, for a total of about $8.5 million a year. (Assessed value of property in El Paso County totals $6.85 billion, and in Pueblo County, $1.66 billion.)
About $8 million a year is a lot for a district that's never spent more than $480,000 in any single year so far and relied on grants from various agencies and member contributions from Green Mountain Falls, Palmer Lake, Manitou Springs, Fountain, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, El Paso County and Pueblo County.
Any infusion of cash, though, is subject to revenue limits imposed by the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, so in early 2015 the district created a companion agency, the Fountain Creek Watershed Water Activity Enterprise. The enterprise is exempt from TABOR revenue caps, Small says, as long as less than 10 percent of its funding comes from state and local grants. The $10 million annual payments for five years from Utilities are not considered grants, he says.
But the Utilities' payments, while large, won't fix all the creek's problems, says Greg Lauer, Fountain city councilor and district board member.
"When you look at the substantial need for projects and maintenance, these numbers barely scratch the surface," he says. Lauer predicts the board will begin discussing a tax measure next year, though it's unlikely it would appear on the 2017 ballot.
For one thing, he notes, the board needs "legal clarification." For example, would a tax measure approved by voters in El Paso County but not in Pueblo County result in the tax being applied only in El Paso County, or would it be considered defeated? Would a tax approved by a majority of voters, regardless of their place of residency, result in it being added to the tax rolls in both counties?
Regardless, Lauer says it's hard to argue against ongoing funding when the board is reminded regularly by landowners along the creek about flood damage.
For now, though, the board is eager to get long-awaited projects underway with the money it has.
"We are so beyond excited," Lauer says. "It's been a long time coming."