A year after a single incident sent 317,000 gallons of sewage from Colorado Springs down Fountain Creek to Pueblo, the city 40 miles to the south is still waiting for Colorado Springs to get its act together.
With a delay in the creation of a stormwater enterprise and a holdup in the lawsuit over the sewage spills, Colorado Springs has Pueblo residents and environmentalists clamoring for a resolution. Since 1999, an estimated 73 million gallons of sewage have been discharged into the waterway that runs through Colorado Springs to Pueblo much of it released when floods washed out a sewage treatment plant six years ago.
On hold until August
The stormwater enterprise, a taxpayer-supported, city-run business that would raise money to pay for improving and building new infrastructure, was approved by City Council last November. The city originally intended to vote on a fee structure on April 25, but postponed the vote to Aug. 22 after local business owners protested they had not had the chance to prepare for the additional cost in their yearly budgets.
Stormwater runoff in Colorado Springs causes Fountain Creek to flood, which accounts for many of the burst sewage pipes that cross over the waterway.
"The sooner Colorado Springs Utilities gets that utility in place and operating, the better," says Ross Vincent of the Pueblo-area chapter of the Sierra Club, which has sued the city over the sewage spills. "Any time there is a delay, it means that the problems slowly get worse."
But Stephannie Finley, president of the governmental affairs division of the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, has another take. "I don't think Pueblo should doubt the commitment of the community," says Finley, who has worked with the city to postpone charging the stormwater fees. "There is a lot of good-faith effort going into these discussions, and we need to be aware of our neighbor to the south."
Vincent maintains he is concerned that the proposed stormwater fee will not raise enough money to create an effective infrastructure. The fee has been projected at an estimated $7.50 per month for private households, with some large local businesses paying as much as $69,000 per year.
Last year, the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against the city for violating the federal Clean Water Act. Pueblo District Attorney Bill Thiebaut also filed suit against Colorado Springs, and on March 3, the cases were combined into a single lawsuit, which is pending review in a Denver court.
Colorado Springs Utilities spokesperson Steve Berry says the utility is working to dismiss the lawsuits. "We argue that they are unnecessary," he says. "The state has fulfilled its regulatory actions and has taken action against Utilities in the form of fines last year and compliance orders." Last year, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment levied a $130,000 penalty on the city.
"Exercise of futility'
But Vincent says trying to dismiss the lawsuit is an "exercise of futility," adding that the Sierra Club is moving forward with the case. The Pueblo District Attorney's Office could not be reached by press time to clarify its current position on the lawsuit.
Meanwhile, the Stormwater Advisory Committee, a citizen board that creates policy recommendations for the enterprise, has met twice. In upcoming sessions, the fledgling group will help the city decide whether or not to phase in the fee slowly.
Gary Rombeck, a member of the committee, retired as the utilities development manager at Colorado Springs Utilities six years ago. He says the enterprise is overdue. "It takes a long time when you have 50 years of history to undo."