Flood warning 

Deadly deluge underscores citys lack of flood control

click to enlarge Flooding can cause major-league damage to the regions - stream banks and infrastructure.
  • Flooding can cause major-league damage to the regions stream banks and infrastructure.

When a blitzkrieg thunderstorm touched down in Colorado Springs last week, the resulting floods buckled concrete stream banks, snapped a spewing sewage pipe and carried two boys to their deaths.

For officials in charge of overseeing Colorado Springs' crumbling storm drainage system, the floods highlighted a usually hidden problem: A lack of funding for flood control has created safety and environmental risks, leaving the city open to major lawsuits.

"It's really going to come back and bite us," City Councilman Richard Skorman said about the $298 million backlog in storm drainage repairs, such as the repair of concrete drains and channels, that the city has identified as necessary. The total projected cost to fix the system exceeds $400 million, a number sure to increase after last week's storm.

Threatens health, property

Flooding not only destroys lives and property and threatens health, Skorman said. It also pollutes water flowing down Fountain Creek into the Arkansas River with eroded dirt, sewage and chemicals.

"After a certain point if these things aren't addressed, people [downstream] have a right to see their difficulties addressed," he said.

City Council currently is considering plans to raise the money needed by charging a fee to every homeowner, church and business based on the total area of water-resistant surfaces -- such as pavement or rooftops -- on their property. Colorado Springs is the largest city in the state that does not have such a fee scheme for drainage repairs.

But when the issue came up at a recent joint meeting between City Council and the El Paso Board of County Commissioners, the notion of such a funding mechanism was met with controversy.

"I will oppose the county doing it because it's illegal," County Commissioner Doug Bruce said in a later interview, citing the possibility that the fee increase would not be put to a public vote. "They know they're ripping us off."

Bruce threatened a lawsuit against the city if it violated the state's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights by increasing taxes without voter approval.

Yet the commissioner acknowledged that the city and county have made the situation worse by ignoring the problem for years.

Nowhere to go

A major flood in 1999 caused tens of millions of dollars in damages in and around Colorado Springs. Yet the city did not budget for storm drainage repairs between 1997 and 2004, city spokeswoman Mary Scott said. Last year the city established an $800,000 program for emergency repairs.

Mere emergency repairs may not prevent the kind of chaos unleashed on June 21, when around 2.5 inches of rain and hail pelted parts of the city in less than one hour.

"With so much concrete, there's nowhere for [water] to go, but run off," said Pamela Evenson, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service's office in Pueblo.

Tucker Graef, 14, and 13-year-old Kevin Carman of Colorado Springs were playing either around a manhole in the street or in Cottonwood Creek when they were swept to their deaths.

"They were just out there doing what 14-year-olds do," said police Sgt. Sal Fiorillo.

Sewage pipes near Sand Creek heaved under the pressure and, in one place, snapped over a block of moving concrete. In all, around 318,000 gallons of untreated sewage-laced water made its way into Fountain Creek. Citizens were warned by Colorado Springs Utilities last week to keep their children and pets away from the water.

The storm was so destructive that city officials still are unable to assess damage costs. As for the long list of drainage repairs, city spokeswoman Scott said, "There may be things on the list that were medium [priority], but after this week, may be high."

-- Dan Wilcock


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