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New money and leadership will affect stormwater-management efforts 

A flood of changes

In a crisis, it's important to remain calm and avoid sudden movements.

But as the Pikes Peak region approaches what could be a season of crisis — specifically a summer of floods — governmental efforts to stem the problem have become increasingly chaotic. Consider:

A Stormwater Task Force organized largely by El Paso County continues to look for a single regional governance structure and funding mechanism for stormwater projects. While it had the support of Colorado Springs' last City Council, the new body looks unpredictable. Meanwhile, Mayor Steve Bach publicly criticizes the process.

Tack on the fact that the city is losing top staff. Fire Chief Rich Brown, who oversaw the Waldo Canyon Fire, just announced his retirement. Worse, Helen Migchelbrink, the city's public works director and city engineer, is leaving, taking her intimate knowledge of post-fire flooding and stormwater problems with her.

Meanwhile, Bach is asking City Council to throw $10 million from the city's reserve fund at the problem. The money would hit the city's weakest links for Waldo-related flooding: North and South Douglas creeks and Camp Creek. That sounds good, except that, even if Council approves the expenditure, shovels won't hit the ground until at least late summer — meaning the majority of monsoon season will be over.

In conclusion, the powers that be are making an effort to prevent a second calamity. It's just rather jumbled.

Smaller county and city projects have been underway since last summer. As larger projects move forward — with federal funding finally expected and a couple flood-control studies soon due — here are some things to mull:

A taxed force

The citizen-led Stormwater Task Force is chugging along, aiming to produce a recommendation in July.

County Commissioner Amy Lathen says she hopes the new Council will be on board with the Task Force, especially since, "The county has already committed to doing this regionally."

In other words, commissioners won't move forward with a ballot issue without the Council's, and ideally the mayor's, support.

Both may be hard to come by. At an April 17 press conference the mayor said he'd work with the county to coordinate projects, but not on funding or governance issues.

"I am not currently in support of a regional entity [governing] stormwater, nor am I in support of a regional tax," he said flatly.

Among the new Councilors, President Keith King supports the mayor's approach. Similarly, Councilor Helen Collins states via e-mail, "Public infrastructure falls under city auspices and stormwater issues will be a priority on our plate ... City Council and the mayor will work together to determine how to fund stormwater issues."

Councilors Andy Pico, Jill Gaebler and Don Knight support a regional solution, with some caveats. Councilor Joel Miller is undecided.

Of the three longer-serving Councilors, Jan Martin and Val Snider support a regional effort, while Merv Bennett opposes it.

Migchelbrink's departure

Migchelbrink confirms that she will leave her position at the end of May. She calls the decision "another journey in my life. I was here for a year and I'm ready to move on and move back to northern Colorado, where I'm from."

During her year in the Springs, Migchelbrink had to navigate a massive fire, the threat of flooding, and a political tango dance that would have left many sweating bullets. She initially worked with the county to identify $686.7 million in needed city stormwater projects. But the mayor balked at the figure, pulled city staff off the project, and ordered a professional review of the findings. The results are due in late summer.

Migchelbrink has stood by the mayor throughout the process, and apparently still does.

"I really feel that's going in the right direction," she says of the stormwater issue. "... I think ultimately it will be solved, but we're taking time and doing it the right way."

That $10 million

At his press conference, Bach said that drawing $10 million from the city's savings to pay for flood and fire issues is smart, though it would leave the city with just $34.3 million in the piggy bank — down from $54.3 million a few months ago.

If it's approved by Council (which was set to consider funding Tuesday, after the Indy's deadline), $8.8 million will go to flood mitigation on North and South Douglas Creeks and Camp Creek — considered the worst problems for the city after the Waldo fire. The city will put $100,000 toward a multi-agency review of the Waldo Canyon and High Park fires, $100,000 toward "emergency preparedness" efforts, and $1 million toward forest management. The latter will be used to thin forests in neighborhoods that are at-risk for forest fires.

The flood mitigation projects won't happen right away. Migchelbrink notes that planning and public processes will take months. Shovels won't hit the Douglas Creek sites until at least late summer. Camp Creek may not see work until next year. That means the city will have already gone through a monsoon season with little mitigation work complete.

The mayor last week defended his timing, noting that the city is still awaiting important studies, and that it has completed smaller projects. "I think this is a timely decision," he said. "Nobody came to us and asked us to use any of our reserves. We took that initiative."

Lathen says the county will also consider extra funding for flood mitigation and stormwater issues at an upcoming meeting.

stanley@csindy.com

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