The Fountain Creek District launches series of meetings to iron out rights protection with flood mitigation

Fountain Creek Watershed
Fountain Creek Watershed

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

The question of how flood control projects on Fountain Creek can be built without harming water rights will be taken up next month in the heart of farm country.

The Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District will host the first of a series of meetings to discuss the issue during the winter water meeting set for Oct. 17 at Otero Junior College in La Junta.

The winter water meeting will be hosted by the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and will bring together some of the largest ditch companies east of Pueblo.

The group determines how a court-decreed program that allows farmers to store water in Lake Pueblo or ditch company reservoirs outside the growing season will operate.

That’s similar to the issue at hand on Fountain Creek, where flood control dams have been proposed, primarily to protect property in Pueblo.

At the July meeting of the Arkansas Basin Roundtable, a grant that proposed to look at the feasibility of Fountain Creek dams was rejected out of hand because several farmers objected to altering water rights to accommodate the dams.

They argued that junior water rights would be injured by such storage.

The timed release of water at more useful times in programs such as the winter water program could actually enhance water rights, however. Some have said this is possible with flood control dams.

In fact, the Denver Urban Drainage District is attempting to work through the same issue, Executive Director Larry Small told the board.

“We need to make it clear we have no intention of harming anyone’s water rights,” Pueblo County Commissioner Terry Hart said.

Several other meetings are planned by the Fountain Creek district to determine if flood control can be done in a way that keeps junior rights whole.

Meanwhile, the district is starting to prioritize spending prior to Colorado Springs’ $50 million payment as part of the Southern Delivery System. Here’s a report from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain:

A district formed to improve Fountain Creek wants to start planning how it will use $50 million in funding that will begin arriving when the Southern Delivery System pipeline comes on line.

“We have to get an idea of what our priorities are before a dime arrives,” said Pueblo County Commissioner Terry Hart, a member of the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District board.

The $50 million will be paid to the district over five years by Colorado Springs Utilities as part of its 1041 agreement with Pueblo County. The money is for building flood control projects that primarily benefit Pueblo, such as a dam or series of dams.

SDS is projected to be fully permitted and online as soon as 2016, so the checks could begin coming in early 2017.

The district does not want to be put in a position of having to directly spend the money, but wants to use it to leverage funding from other sources.

“The projects identified so far exceed $100 million,” Hart said. “There could be even more as we branch out of the core area. We need to find the best ways to leverage other grants.”

Hart asked the board to form a committee specifically to look at how the money would be spent. It would include representatives from Pueblo County, the district and Utilities.

That conversation comes even as the district watches the progress of a stormwater vote in El Paso County this November and sets its budget for next year.

The vote will determine whether Colorado Springs and its neighbors will agree to fund stormwater improvements to the tune of $39 million annually beginning in 2016. That would satisfy other requirements of the 1041 agreement.

The district also is looking at whether its own budget could be paid with advance interest payments from Colorado Springs Utilities or if it’s time to pass the hat again among member governments.

At the meeting, Hart noted that the district is relying heavily on voluntary contributions and must start looking at its real operating costs if it is to become sustainable.

Finally, water quality is a concern and responsibility on Fountain Creek as well. Here’s a report from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain:

While the focus lately has been on reining in water on Fountain Creek, the quality of that water is important too.

“We have a statutory duty to clean up the Fountain Creek watershed,” said Pueblo County Commissioner Terry Hart Friday at the meeting of the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District. “There are significant problems that we still don’t know enough about.”

So the board caught up on the science of water quality from Del Nimmo and Scott Herrmann, who have spent years studying water quality on Fountain Creek, the Arkansas River and Lake Pueblo.

The three are interconnected, Nimmo explained.

“We have tremendous resources and they are all connected,” Nimmo said. “They are tied to the reservoir.”

Lesson 1: Invasive species in Lake Pueblo will have more opportunity to spread to Fountain Creek and reservoirs in Pueblo County when the Southern Delivery System pipeline is completed, Herrmann explained.

Lesson 2: Mercury has accumulated in the water and fish in the headwater areas of Fountain Creek and Monument Creek, where the scientists did not expect to find it. Nimmo’s theory is that emissions from power plants or from former smelters in both Pueblo and El Paso counties contributed to this, but that’s not been proved. He suggested the district think in terms of an “airshed” as well as a watershed.

Lesson 3: The researchers have baseline data about water quality prior to the large, destructive Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires. They also collected samples of the charcoal-laden water after the first big rainfall following the Waldo Canyon Fire in 2012.

“This study needs to be repeated about now, in the next year, to see what effect the fire had,” Herrmann said.

Nimmo and Herrmann have headed up numerous Fountain Creek studies at Colorado State University-Pueblo over the past decade. Herrmann has studied aquatic life in Lake Pueblo since its construction in the early 1970s. Nimmo was involved in other studies on the Upper Arkansas River near Leadville as well.

“We need to continue this type of study,” Hart said. “It should be a district project.”

More Fountain Creek coverage here.

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