August 06, 2014 News » Cover Story

The waterfall no one wanted 

Long-delayed stormwater project has carved a chasm that could bring catastrophe

If ever there was a poster child for the city's stormwater problem, it's a 35-foot waterfall that crashes down a hill in northwest Colorado Springs and threatens to wash away Mike Chiaramonte's house every time there's a hard rain.

Erosion has carved a deep chamber into the hillside, where rushing waters cascade from a development along the ridgeline down to his doorstep. It's so scary, Chiaramonte says, that he keeps his pets and two children, ages 3 and 6, inside the house whenever raindrops fall. There they watch, essentially trapped, as water cuts their home off from the city street.

The problem might help make the case for stormwater funding, but it doesn't inspire much confidence to know the city is largely to blame. Besides approving a developer's flawed drainage design 33 years ago, the city has failed to effectively deal with the problem since. Its one tangible effort — a drain installed to carry the water to a city street below the waterfall — plugs up frequently, causing overflows that have swamped Chiaramonte's house at least three times since he bought it three years ago, most recently on July 16.

"That water came down from a trickle to a roar," Chiaramonte says, "and it happened really quick."

The one storm caused nearly $20,000 of damage to his home; pretty severe for what the city classifies as a "medium" priority on its stormwater projects list.

Last week, the project seemed to elevate in priority, as officials interviewed engineering firms about designing a plan that would protect the Chiaramontes' house from further flooding. The city asked Chiaramonte and his wife, Laurel, to sign a form allowing the city access to their property to work on the problem. But as soon as it looked like progress was being made, things came to an impasse: The Chiaramontes noticed that the same form would relieve the city of all future liability from damage after the repairs are implemented.

"We are angry and feel insulted!" Laurel Chiaramonte said via email last Thursday.

With home-repair bills awaiting payment, Mike Chiaramonte is talking to lawyers. And owners of the townhomes perched atop the eroding ridge, who wonder if their foundations have been compromised, say they might do the same.

30-year issue

The problem at Chiaramonte's property dates back to the 1980s, according to city documents studied by Dean Luse, a semi-retired architect and engineer who lives atop the hill in the Pinecliff Townhomes.

According to those documents, in January 1981 the city approved a drainage report from consulting engineer Ollie Watts that included an 18-inch storm sewer pipe running through Pebblewood at Pinecliff and Pinecliff Townhomes housing developments on Golden Hills Road, about a half mile northwest of the Sunbird Mountain Grill & Tavern (see map, below). Pebblewood and the drainage system were developed by Frank Price. (A bank would later take possession of the project, then turn it over to another local developer, Luse says.)

Luse notes the 1981 report states that riprap was to be installed to dissipate the water's rapid flows, if necessary, and that there was "ample bedrock to prevent significant erosion."

"The failure of the city to ever make corrections for this erroneous claim," he says today, "underlies everything that has happened subsequently."

In 1986, the city notified a different engineering firm, Finn & Associates of Colorado Springs, that an error was discovered in the drainage design and asked that "the appropriate erosion protection be installed in this area." City requirements called for runoff to be contained in a lined channel or pipe, to control erosion.

About a year later, on Sept. 19, 1987, attorney Pete Susemihl wrote to the city complaining of the "rather severe" erosion caused by the drainage onto a property called Pinecliff No. 12, belonging to his client David Sellon, and threatened to sue. By late 1988, Finn & Associates reported to the city that it had inspected a relief storm sewer north of the drainage pipe — there's no record of exactly who installed it, or when — and the city signed off on it. This relief system was composed of a grate to filter debris, a catch basin, and an 18-inch pipe running from where water hits the ground from the waterfall to a storm sewer along Popes Valley Drive.

City records have a gap from 1988 to 1995, during which the savings and loan crisis took place. Sellon's property was foreclosed upon in 1994; in 1995 Otero Savings and Loan sold one lot (which would later become Chiaramonte's house) to Terry Holman.

That's when the dispute resumed. In May 1995, Holman, with Timbernook Homes, had his attorney, Richard Hanes, write to the city about erosion debris plugging the catch basin, with rushing water "carving a precipitous trench through the lots ... creating an extremely hazardous situation for neighborhood children who might venture too close to the ditch during a run off."

Later that month, the city attorney's office issued a letter to Holman's lawyer saying the city agreed to clean out the catch basin and deposit the soil into crevices left behind by the rushing waters. The letter also said the city would "investigate other potential improvements" and, "if recommended," submit them through the city's capital improvement program budgeting process.

In 1995, the house that's now the Chiaramontes' was built at 545 Popes Valley Drive. In '96, Kim and Bryan Gilman, who had purchased the house from Holman, wrote to him demanding "immediate attention" to damage including exposed pipes, gas lines and wiring and "a very deep ditch" on their property caused by the "inadequate drainage system." Holman turned to the city, which again pledged to "keep the drainage open" while it considered "a longer term project."

Finally, in August 1996, the city told Holman in a letter that it was investigating alternatives. "At this time, it is anticipated that a design will be complete so that bids for construction can be taken by the end of this year," Bruce Thorson, then-stormwater and subdivision manager, wrote. "Construction should occur early in 1997."

No project was ever built. City stormwater manager Tim Mitros says via email, "I have not found any information in our files as to why the project was never done. The people that were here at the time ... are gone." Thorson didn't return a phone call seeking comment.

A decade went by. In May 2007, nearby property owner Paul Trousil — who had complained to the city back in the '90s — again wrote to the city, noting he'd been told by the city the drainage was safe. But he said he had walked his lot with a geohazard engineer "who had highly recommended that I not enter the erosional site with fear that large soil chunks would fall on me (more than 2,000 pounds in size)." The city responded that it was "looking into this matter."

Trousil wrote the city again in August 2008. The city responded that it too saw "a significant erosion concern," but that the project had not been chosen for funding.

Rushing waters

The most spectacular evidence of the failed drainage plan lies a short hike from Chiaramonte's house, where water blasts out of a pipe and down the hill. From there, it's supposed to empty into the relief system installed in the '80s. But the grate frequently plugs up, sending the torrent over land and onto his property.

The Chiaramontes bought the house in early 2011 while both were stationed in Japan with the Air Force. They hired an engineer to inspect the property and were told of "a waterfall" up the slope behind their home. But the engineer said he didn't think it would pose a flood risk, Chiaramonte says.

The first flood event took place during that year, he says, and erosion required him to replace part of an asphalt connector between his driveway and the city street. The couple moved into the house in May 2012, when Chiaramonte was assigned to teach at the Air Force Academy. It was a drought year that brought wildland fires but little rain and no flooding.

"When we moved back, there was a little erosion along that fence," he says, referring to his lot's south side. "We didn't know it was from drainage erosion."

In early 2013, he says, both he and a neighbor asked the city to clean out the catch basin. He doesn't know how many times the basin has been cleaned, but in May 2014, water flowed into his basement and his garage. The couple had everything professionally cleaned, he says.

Then, on July 16, he says, a heavy rain pummeled the area, and rainwater gushed over the hillside and into his house, this time leaving 10 inches of water in his garage and nearly an inch of water and mud in the basement. To replace trim and drywall, re-install landscaping and replace flooring will cost $15,000 to $20,000, he says. Flood waters also left the home's electrical ground exposed, a dangerous situation.

"My insurance doesn't cover it," he explains, "because it's external water entering the house, and I'm not in a floodplain."

He's submitted a claim to the city for reimbursement, but the city has denied it. Chiaramonte says he plans to sue the city.

"In May, the first time it flooded, we got the city councilman [Don Knight] out there. A bunch of folks in engineering and stormwater were there, and they were talking about coming up with a permanent solution, and that it wasn't designed right," Chiaramonte says. They also spoke of trying to fit the project into the city budget either this year, next year or some future year.

Meantime, the city just scoops up debris. "Every time there's a flood, the city comes down and digs out the street," he says.

Looking back, and having researched documents with the help of Luse, Chiaramonte is amazed the problem has festered for so long.

"The city approved that drain from the get-go," he says, adding city officials subsequently approved construction of homes downstream. "The amount of water that comes down that hill is a danger to my house. But there are kids that play back there. There's a risk to life. Then you start talking about the houses on the hill. ... Is there enough support to hold those houses up there? We don't know the answer to that question."

Luse says the townhomes are built on concrete stem-wall foundations — slabs with short concrete walls onto which the structures' frames are built. He wonders if the buildings are sufficiently anchored to survive if the pipe fails or the ridge crumbles further from erosion. As recently as July 29, big rocks crashed off the eroded cavern in heavy rains, Luse says.

While Chiaramonte looks for a lawyer, Marcia Holly, community manager for Pebblewood at Pinecliff, and Michelle Green, who manages Pinecliff Townhomes, also say they are considering legal action. Pebblewood spent $18,000 in 2008 to shore up the foundation area, Holly says. But over the last year, erosion has advanced. Says resident Connie Brallier, "It's come up to our deck."

Setting priorities

The city terms the project, estimated at $241,000, one of 175 "medium" priorities on a $365-million stormwater project list compiled in 2013 by engineering firm CH2MHill. The list also contains 44 high priorities and 20 low priorities. But that's not set in stone. "If the problem worsens, sometimes that allows us to juggle things around," says city stormwater engineer Steve Gardner.

Gardner started with the city just over a year ago and surveyed the problem last summer. The HOAs called the city in January saying the erosion was worsening, he says. They called again in May. Since then, he's met with residents at least twice, most recently on July 30. That meeting also included Pinecliff Homeowners Association, which includes Chiaramonte's neighborhood of single-family homes.

Acknowledging the original drainage plan was faulty, Gardner tells the Independent, "It didn't work. [The developer's consulting engineer's] assessment was wrong."

Installing a catch basin wasn't a good move, he adds, because it takes intense maintenance to keep it open. "In the first flush of the storm, the debris immediately clogs the inlet," he explains. And, he says, "you can't have somebody there all the time," cleaning out the grate and pipe.

Gardner says the city's recent hydrology report, done last month, computed that 100-year storms would generate water velocities up to 25 cubic feet per second. The developer's 1981 drainage system was built to accommodate expected flow of 14.7 cfs.

The next step, he says, is for the city to hire a consulting engineer, at a cost of roughly $35,000, to design a permanent fix. "Then it's a matter of trying to find the funds to actually construct it," he says.

Mitros says the project has taken on new urgency in recent weeks due to heavy rains causing damage. "I went out there last week," he said in an interview July 29, "and I just said, 'Wow.' We just gotta take a look at this stuff and find a way to make it work."

He tells the Indy he's searching for money in this year's budget, but notes the price tag is "a moving target until we do some more study."

Gardner says the city might turn to the HOAs for financial participation, but that might be barking up the wrong tree. Pinecliff Townhomes is more likely to expect to receive money from the city, not the other way around, considering the HOA owns a preservation easement precisely where the water has gouged the hillside. Luse reports that nobody has been able to find a record that documents the HOA agreeing to give the city a drainage easement for the waterfall area; without one, the drainage would be encroaching on the preservation easement illegally, Luse says.

Going back to Frank Price, the Pebblewood developer, is probably a fool's errand, given the passage of time. Several in the development community who were contacted for this story didn't remember him.

'Finger in the dike'

Councilman Don Knight, who represents the northwest District 1 where the waterfall is located, has visited the site at least twice this season and hopes the city can find an answer soon. Crediting stormwater crews with doing "a heck of a job" on the city's stormwater woes, he admits the city has a lot of drainage issues.

"It's like a little boy with his finger in the hole in the dike," he says. "There's a lot of holes. There's just more than we can address. But when we have an issue that causes property damage, then it needs to be elevated [in priority]."

Nobody has to tell Mitros about the city's inadequate flood-control system. By some estimates the city's needs top $700 million.

"These old corrugated metal pipes are only lasting 30 to 35 years, and the bottoms are wearing out, and that causes sinkholes," he says. "They basically collapse on themselves. We've got this stuff all over town."

One sits atop the bluff and underlies the Pebblewood townhome complex. Reminded of that, Mitros says he will send a crew there to inspect its interior using a mobile camera.

As for the bigger problem, city officials told residents at a July 30 meeting they're interviewing engineers to design a permanent solution. But Bruce Hutchison, president of the Pinecliff HOA, says not much was said about what the city might do in the meantime to prevent further damage, other than some discussion of using hay bales, sand bags and installing more riprap.

"Most people were dissatisfied, because we didn't get a solution for the Chiaramontes," Hutchison says.

Hutchison says things appear to have stopped since the city presented the Chiaramontes with that release-of-liability form. The couple interprets the form to say it would relieve the city of liability for past and future water damage. Mike Chiaramonte told Gardner via email that same day, "I am in no way going to waive the city's liability from flood damage simply to get a temporary solution in place that may not even work. Let alone waive liability from now until the end of time. I've already signed a form authorizing the city to access my land to provide protection."

Mitros says through a city spokesperson the city "is working with the Chiaramonti [sic] family to provide a temporary fix to address their stormwater concerns. Although it is not typical for the City to work on private property, we felt it important to provide some temporary relief for the family while a permanent solution is complete."

Mitros also notes the release of liability "addresses any future stormwater concerns that may arise as a direct result of the work done on the property. Once the release is signed, the City will begin work on the property." Mitros didn't address whether the release of liability absolves the city from past damages.

So the Chiaramontes continue to take up a fight that's spanned three decades, and that leaves the couple incredulous and distrustful. "In a decade and a half, they haven't fixed it," Mike says. "Why would I believe it now?"

Until something's worked out, the Chiaramontes will watch the skies and hope that rainwater doesn't invade their house or endanger their children. "If we got a heavy rainstorm," he says, "it could kill my kids."


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