Fountain Creek: May rainfall was not kind to the stream

Fountain Creek Watershed
Fountain Creek Watershed

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Large chunks of the bank plunked into Fountain Creek Wednesday evening as Pueblo County Commissioner Terry Hart got a close-up look at the damage to Overton Road.

Two large wooden utility poles floated in the muck below, as the river cut back from the west base of the old Pinon Bridge, which washed out in the 1999 flood. After it slammed back into the east bank, it ran along the channel into a clump of trees. By morning the trees and part of the road would be gone.

“This is unbelievable,” Hart said. “The engineers tell us that Fountain Creek acts like a firehose, the way it moves around.”

Neighbors soon gathered at the spot. One of them was Tony Faxon, bringing his two children home to his 90-acre farm on Overton Road. He was worried about his well, which he had fortified a few days earlier after the last round of floods.

“It looks like the Washington Monument now,” Faxon said on Friday.

He explained the well is now a pole sticking 30 feet into the air — about half of its total depth.

He’s lost a chunk of land 80 by 500 feet and 30 feet deep so far this year.

While the house is on higher ground, he’s now faced with putting in a new well.

The Faxons have lived on Overton Road for four years.

“It’s been an ongoing struggle, but this has been the worst year,” Faxon said. “We couldn’t have anticipated this would happen.”

He’s not alone.

‘We need help’

At Friday’s meeting of the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District, which Hart chaired, a litany of damage was recited.

“We need some sort of help,” said Tracy Tolle, who farms for Frank Masciantonio in Pueblo County and Clear Springs Ranch in El Paso County.

“That’s our livelihood.”

Tolle has fought Fountain Creek for years and has seen it through higher water than what was flowing last week.

But the sustained midrange flows for weeks on end and saturated ground are taking their toll.

From his perspective, the actions of one landowner to wall off water just moves the river to the other bank, where the damage is amplified.

John Browning, who has a place on the east side of Fountain Creek in El Paso County, agrees.

He said fortifications on the west bank have created 50-foot cliffs where children play on the other side.

“You need to take care of both sides of the creek,” Browning said.

“Something needs to be done several decades ago.”

Jane Rhodes, Masciantonio’s sister and a Fountain Creek board member, brought pictures and descriptions of damage at a dozen places along Fountain Creek in Pueblo and El Paso counties.

Irrigation headgates are gone, acres of pasture and fields have vanished and wells wiped out by the whipsaw motion off the water over the past few weeks. Water snaked around one end of the new Pinon Bridge, setting up the possibility of future erosion.

Down the drain?

Up in El Paso County, a demonstration project sponsored by the Fountain Creek district — a showpiece that would show landowners how to use natural materials to turn the current — is gone, landowner Ferris Frost said.

Barriers set up to protect an organic gardening spot are washing away.

“The main channel is cutting through our headgates,” Frost said.

“It’s huge and fast . . . really extreme.”

The Fountain Creek board had few answers for landowners seeking help.

The district has no money, as it is awaiting $50 million from Colorado Springs Utilities when Southern Delivery System goes online. Ironically, SDS has permit issues ahead related to Colorado Springs’ failure to provide a stable source of funding for stormwater control.

Three weeks of rain have also cast clouds over some of the district’s activities, not just the Frost Ranch demonstration project.

“There is debris everywhere,” Hart said, telling the Fountain Creek board he has been watching the damage daily. “There is a lot of destruction going on and this is just the beginning.”

The city of Pueblo was getting ready to fire up its sediment collector again before the rains hit. The collector, installed four years ago when Fountain Creek was behaving itself, ran for a few weeks before a big wave buried it. It’s now under about three feet of sediment.

“We wanted to see if we could make it work without having to build coffer dams,” said Jeff Bailey, stormwater superintendent for the city of

Pueblo. The district also pushed for a demonstration project behind the North Side Walmart, where a detention pond and wetlands was constructed. The pond’s embankment partially washed out in the 2013 flood — and is probably eroding this time around — it’s been difficult to check. The pond has not had an impact on really large flows through Pueblo.

“Right now, it’s a money pit for us,” Bailey said. The city has to augment water stored in the area as well as maintain the pond.

There have been some things that work on Fountain Creek.

Things that work

At Clear Springs Ranch, which is owned by Colorado Springs Utilities on the east side of Interstate 25 near the Ray Nixon Power Plant, a ditch diversion structure across Fountain Creek was built in the 1970s. It survived the 1999 flood, but posed a problem for small native fish. A million-dollar fish ramp was constructed to help the fish get through.

In Pueblo, the city built rock jetties several years ago behind the Target Store on the North Side after Fountain Creek cut perilously close to the area in 1999. Those have held up through high water events as well.

The district still is studying construction of a dam or series of detention ponds along Fountain Creek to hold back the water and release it at more opportune times, but that effort is mired in a study of how to satisfy downstream water rights. In the meantime, Fountain Creek is playing ping-pong with land along its banks. Shoring up one side sends the water to the other and new channels are constantly being cut. While cities and counties have applied for disaster aid as roads, parks, trails and homes are threatened, the farmers are losing ground they’ll never get back. There’s no clear path for financial aid to the property owners.

“There’s a domino effect,” Tolle said, saying he thinks a multimilliondollar project built by Colorado Springs at Clear Springs Ranch may have breached in recent flooding. “Those ponds are not going to work.

You’ve got to give us help or there won’t be any farms.”

Meanwhile, Colorado Springs is looking at changing building codes to help minimize runoff into Fountain Creek. Here’s a report from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain:

After the recent stomping by Mother Nature, the Fountain Creek technical team dug out the playbook Wednesday.

Like any team, the group is focused more on future victories and overcoming challenges than dwelling on past mistakes.

The team in this case is the technical advisory committee of the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District. It includes planners and engineers from Pueblo and El Paso counties, including the cities of Pueblo and Colorado Springs.

A big part of reducing future damage from flooding on Fountain Creek will be requiring future development — whether it’s a new project or redeveloping areas — to make sure flooding is not intensified by new hard surfaces such as streets, parking lots, sidewalks and roofs that prevent water from soaking into the ground.

“So often the developers design the development and tell the engineers, ‘Here, make it work.’ But urbanization almost always spurs the need for channel stabilization,” Steve Gardner, of the Colorado Springs stormwater department, told the group.

Gardner was explaining a drainage criteria manual Colorado Springs has developed in response to years of meetings that have improved understanding of Fountain Creek’s destructive nature. The earlier versions of the drainage manual supported projects that dumped water as quickly as possible into the waterway from flooded streets.

The new approach is to mimic natural conditions with techniques that encourage infiltration, move water through wetlands where possible and build detention projects that will handle a full spectrum of floods, Gardner said.

But it’s difficult to make up for the mistakes of the past, when many of the hills in Colorado Springs were paved as the city grew. One of the tough realities is that stormwater detention projects require land. Apparently, the government will take ground so the water won’t.

“Land allocation is a critical component,” Gardner said. “To get the water to spread out, you need more land. Urbanization results in taller peaks.”

That was seen during the May floods on Fountain Creek, the most recent of events where the creek turned into a river that ate banks, ripped away roads and changed course. With the ground saturated by weeks of rain, there was no opportunity for infiltration.

In that case, the drainage criteria manual recommends detention ponds to hold back the water, which also require land. A series of smaller ponds on tributaries would cost less to build and require less maintenance, Gardner said.

Such a system would allow localized storms to be contained, while reducing the cumulative effect on the creek. Among options studied by the U.S. Geological Survey, that system does not provide as much protection to Pueblo as larger detention ponds or a big dam.

Like any game plan, it has to be executed well to work. Issues still remaining include incorporating the drainage criteria manual with site planning, floodplain management on a larger scale, project phasing to make sure each project fits with others and adopting the same criteria throughout the entire 932-square-mile Fountain Creek watershed. Colorado Springs also faces challenges for funding a backlog of more than $500 million in stormwater projects in a way that satisfies Pueblo County and the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District.

But standards for future development are an important step. Gardner said some developers are talking with the city and finding that things like natural infiltration channels can become amenities that increase property values.

“A lot of folks are stuck in the old way of doing things,” Gardner said.

It’s going to take a lot of dough and some big projects to fix problems on Fountain Creek. Here’s a report from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain:

It’s going to take big projects to tame Fountain Creek. Even a $4.2 million project by Colorado Springs Utilities to redirect Fountain Creek into a less damaging course suffered damage from the June 15 storm surge after holding up reasonably well during relentless rain in May.

But a series of smaller attempts to protect property by armoring it with piles of concrete or a living shield of plants were swept away in the raging waters.

And the district that was formed to find the best way to fix Fountain Creek has no money and unfinished plans on how to mend the monster.

“There’s good news and bad news,” said Pueblo County Commissioner Terry Hart. “The good news is that the district has the authority to handle the entire watershed. The bad news is that there’s a lot to study and we’re still trying to understand how this works.”

Even when the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District figures out the best way, there remains the question of money.

“There isn’t an unlimited source of money,” said Pueblo City Councilman Dennis Flores. “Our task is to find out what will work with the amount of resources we have.”

So far, not much is working, the Fountain Creek board learned from presentations Friday.

As part of its commitment to the Bureau of Reclamation and Pueblo County for the Southern Delivery System, Utilito ties is required to restore wetlands, and its $4.2 million Clear Springs Ranch project was the way to achieve that. In fact, the Army Corps of Engineers certified the work in January, said Allison Moser, an engineer for Utilities.

The project covered 6 acres, fixed a past erosion cut and routed Fountain Creek away from the bluff to the west, which it had been undercutting. Thousands of plants were just getting established after being planted last year. The spreading wetlands were designed to handle the overflow of Fountain Creek during high water without sacrificing ground.

But the May storms deposited silt over much of the area and began to damage the bank of a channel that had been reinforced with 2-foot boulders.

“We really saw a lot of sedimentation, but the wetlands were designed to handle sedimentation,” Moser said. “The intention was to have the plants fill in over 10-15 years, but it took it in just two weeks (of high water). It left a lot of debris.”

The June 15 storm, which caused peak flows of 20,000 cubic feet per second at Fountain the next day, ripped through the new bank and left the river in its old course and sent the main flow of Fountain Creek to the west bank again.

“There’s still some evidence the structures held,” Moser said. “We have not been able to get our guys back down there to look at it.”

Utilities has the kind of resources unavailable to most landowners to undertake such a large project, and from Moser’s description it may not be enough to keep Mother Nature under control.

“One of the things we learned is that you need a big footprint to make a difference,” Moser said.

That was borne out by comments from Ferris Frost, whose family’s ditches and a district demonstration project were destroyed in the May floods. The June flooding added more silt to injury.

She showed slides of the damage, as well as how concrete rip-rap installed by her neighbor Jane Green after the September 2011 flood was obliterated this year. Green had put in the bank armor after a 2011 flood cut through an old levee and added even more material when the 2013 flood took a second bite.

Some of the slides showed a large island with mature cottonwoods that had developed years ago from the constant erosion of a 50-foot bluff that Frost calls “The Great Wall.”

“This is terrible,” said Jane Rhodes, a Pueblo County landowner who sits on the Fountain Creek board. “It looks this way all down the creek.”

Pueblo County is still assessing the damage to see if disaster aid is available, Hart said in response to questions from Frank Masciantonio, Rhodes’ brother and one of the owners of land that has been severely eroded.

The district has master plans for Monument Creek and Fountain Creek south of Colorado Springs, and is in the process for developing another for Upper Fountain Creek, which has its own set of problems stemming from the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire, General Manager Larry Small explained.

What it does not have is money. It will begin receiving $50 million in five annual installments in 2016 if SDS comes on line. That’s on schedule, but Pueblo County commissioners are lining meetings later this year to determine if Utilities is complying with all of its commitments under the county’s 1041 permit for SDS.

“What we’re trying to get our minds around are these two projects (Clear Springs Ranch and Frost Farms) and how well they survived or didn’t survive,” Hart said. “The question is whether we stabilize stream banks or do we need to look at the source of the water?”

More Fountain Creek coverage here.

Leave a Reply