If Colorado Springs leaders don't know about the widespread and growing anger in Pueblo over sewage-tainted Fountain Creek, they simply haven't attended many recent community meetings in the city 40 miles south.
Last Thursday night, activists attended at least two meetings to protest Colorado Springs' inability to halt sewage spills into Fountain Creek. Many vocal citizens also are condemning Colorado Springs Utilities' plans to pump fresh water north from Pueblo Reservoir and return it downstream as treated wastewater.
The multiple spills led Pueblo District Attorney Bill Thiebaut to sue Colorado Springs in October for violating the Clean Water Act. Colorado Congressman John Salazar joined the fray last week by asking the federal government to delay approval of Colorado Springs' massive project to pump more water to the city -- dubbed the Southern Delivery System, or SDS -- until an environmental study of Fountain Creek is completed.
Anger is growing
But outrage in Pueblo is reaching well beyond big-name politicians. At a community meeting held near Pueblo's low-income lower east side neighborhood last week, citizens vented anger.
"We live in a poor community," said resident Deborah Mestas. "But we shouldn't need to go and smell, excuse my expression, pure shit."
And the anger is growing, with organizations such as Friends of the Fountain, the Colorado Progressive Coalition and the Sierra Club conducting grassroots campaigns across southern Colorado to raise awareness about threats to the creek.
"The calls in our office have probably grown 1,000-fold," said Pam DiFatta, Pueblo-based outreach director for Salazar. She added that calls concerning Colorado Springs environmental policies were coming in from all 29 counties Salazar represents -- a massive area extending across half the state.
Among Colorado Springs officials, silence has largely pervaded.
Asked whether she had attended any recent community meetings in Pueblo dealing with complaints over Fountain Creek and SDS, Colorado Springs City Councilwoman Margaret Radford said, "I have not. I know the mayor has done some of that last year."
Battle for public opinion
Two years ago, Radford and Mayor Lionel Rivera portrayed themselves as chief public ambassadors for SDS, saying they would meet with various Pueblo officials to promote the project.
Radford blamed Puebloans' growing anger over SDS on their city's daily paper, The Chieftain, and what she calls its "steady stream of inaccurate distorted information" hostile to SDS and Colorado Springs' creek clean-up efforts.
Since 1999, more than 73 million gallons of untreated wastewater have flowed from Colorado Springs into the creek, along with storm water and sediment from the city's construction sites and parking lots.
At the east side meeting in Pueblo, attended by about 25 citizens, Thiebaut engaged in classic David and Goliath-style rabble-rousing.
"We're either going to win this case on our feet or we're going to lose trying," he said, pumping his fist forward and prompting applause.
"[Colorado Springs is] going to have to be brought to the table kicking and screaming before they [fix Fountain Creek]," said Sierra Club attorney Eric Huber, who may file a lawsuit similar to Thiebaut's.
In the battle for public opinion, Colorado Springs may be losing.
That could be due to the efforts of individuals like Margaret Mora, a Colorado Progressive Coalition regional coordinator who helped organize the meeting to boost involvement among poor Pueblo residents.
"Colorado Springs Utilities counts on us not having any power," she said. "I'll tell you, the power is in this room."
-- Dan Wilcock