For as long as people in Manitou Springs can remember, scenic Ruxton Creek has meandered through the picturesque mountain town, enchanting tourists, providing wildlife habitat and enhancing residents' quality of life.
But in recent months, the creek's flow has been reduced to a tiny trickle. And unless the people of Manitou are willing to cough up some cash, the water isn't coming back anytime soon.
That's the message from Colorado Springs Utilities, which controls the flow in the creek via a pipeline serving the City of Colorado Springs, which owns the rights to the creek's water.
Since drought conditions set in last year, Colorado Springs has taken virtually all the water in Ruxton Creek, alarming Manitou residents and community leaders. If Colorado Springs Utilities won't let some flow back in the creek, they say, the creek bed will turn into mud, with pools of stagnant water providing a breeding ground for disease-carrying mosquitoes. They fear it would diminish the scenic surroundings of the nearby Pikes Peak Cog Railway -- one of the region's prime tourist attractions -- and that it could ruin the riparian wildlife habitat along the stream.
"It's an emotional issue for the people I represent," Manitou Mayor Marcy Morrison said last week. "The historic presence of water in that creek has such an impact."
Morrison met with utility representatives Friday to discuss the matter. Following the meeting, Colorado Springs Utilities said it was willing to allow a modest flow in the creek, but only if people in Manitou pay the utility between $8,500 and $28,000 per year. The money would offset the higher cost of recovering the water farther downstream, say representatives for the utility, which is owned by the people of Colorado Springs.
Morrison couldn't be reached for comment following Friday's meeting. But Bud Ford, a former Manitou mayor and local business owner, characterized the utility's offer as extortion.
"They're basically holding us up for money," Ford charged. "What Colorado Springs is doing is reprehensible. It borders on evil."
Go with the flow
Lisa Mills, a spokeswoman for Colorado Springs Utilities, said the utility has diverted water from Ruxton Creek for about 100 years, via an inlet located just upstream of Manitou. A pipeline takes the water to a pumping station in Colorado Springs at 33rd Street and Fountain Creek.
Historically, there has been enough water to fill the pipeline and still provide flow in Ruxton Creek, which joins up with Fountain Creek in downtown Manitou. But due to the recent drought, all of the water is now going into the pipeline.
A trickle of water still flows through Manitou, but only because the pipeline is old and leaky. Colorado Springs Utilities is planning to replace portions of the pipeline to boost its capacity and stop the leaks.
The utility doesn't have to take the water upstream, Mills concedes. If the water were allowed to flow down Ruxton Creek, the utility could still recover it downstream at its 33rd Street pumping station.
However, diverting the water upstream reduces pumping costs by taking advantage of gravity, notes utility spokesman Don Miles.
"If we let the water flow down Ruxton Creek, there is an increased cost," Miles said.
So the dispute isn't really over the water itself, he said. "It's who pays for the pumping."
The utility's offer to allow some flow in the creek is based on the estimated cost of recovering the water downstream -- between $8,500 and $17,000 for a flow of one cubic foot per second, from April 1 through October, or $28,000 for the entire year.
Those costs, Miles says, shouldn't fall on the utility's ratepayers -- the people of Colorado Springs. "They should not have to subsidize an aesthetic flow through the creek," he said.
The view from Manitou
But according to critics in Manitou, it's not just about aesthetics -- it's also about environmental stewardship.
In its April newsletter, Colorado Springs Utilities proclaimed that it is "dedicated to environmental protection ... from natural resource conservation to protecting wildlife and sensitive wetlands."
Environmental stewardship, the newsletter announced, "is one of our main goals. ... We believe it's an expectation of our citizen-owners and we believe it's the right thing to do."
Julia Wright, who lives adjacent to lower Ruxton Creek, says the utility's water-grab flies in the face of its professed concern for the environment.
"This action will destroy the ecosystem that has existed for hundreds of years in this canyon," Wright wrote in an e-mail message to the Independent.
Miles, the utility spokesman, responded that during a drought, "you have to make tough choices."
Ford says Colorado Springs Utilities also sought to dry up the creek in the mid-1990s, when he was mayor. At that time, he threatened to take the utility to task under the federal Wetlands Act, which protects streams and other wetlands.
But last fall, the Bush Administration scaled back enforcement of the act, making it less of a threat, Ford said. Now, he says, all Manitou can do is appeal to the goodwill of Colorado Springs' residents and leaders.
"A good neighbor wouldn't be doing this," Ford said.
-- Terje Langeland
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