Fountain Creek: Lower Ark and other agencies wonder if the @EPA will stay the course on lawsuit v. #ColoradoSprings

The Fountain Creek Watershed is located along the central front range of Colorado. It is a 927-square mile watershed that drains south into the Arkansas River at Pueblo. The watershed is bordered by the Palmer Divide to the north, Pikes Peak to the west, and a minor divide 20 miles east of Colorado Springs. Map via the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District.

From The Colorado Springs Independent (Pam Zubeck):

…in November 2016, the EPA and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment sued, alleging violations of the Clean Water Act and the city’s Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permit to discharge into creeks, streams and rivers. As a federal judge looks to set a trial date this summer, the state and lawsuit intervenors, Pueblo County and the Rocky Ford-based Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, urge the EPA in a March 26 letter to “re-commit” to the case, suggesting a dismissal or settlement might be in the works.

That would be a mistake, says Lower Ark executive director Jay Winner, because the city has broken promises in the past involving stormwater. “I started this in 2005 and we’ve had three or four deals, and something always goes south,” he says. “We’ve got to make sure we have good clean water, not just for now but for the future.”

The city’s struggle to fund stormwater dates to two failed ballot measures in 2001, and City Council’s adoption of fees in 2007 only to rescind them in 2009. In April 2016, the matter became a sticking point as the city prepared to activate the Southern Delivery System, a $825 million, 50-mile water pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir. Having issued a construction permit for it, Pueblo County demanded the city fix its storm system to relieve Fountain Creek flooding, or face revocation. In response, Mayor John Suthers and Council pledged $460 million over 20 years for city drainage work.

In November 2017, Suthers and Council proposed shifting that cost from the city’s general fund to fees. Voters approved, and the city begins collections in July. (See sidebar.)

By all indications, the city is working to comply with its MS4 permit. Its March 30 annual report for 2017 says the city:

  • Increased the number of drainage structures it maintained, from 53 in 2016 to 70, and for the first time, city workers walked every foot of the city’s 270 miles of creeks and channels to assess needs.
  • Boosted by 56 percent its reviews of drainage reports and construction and grading plans — to 1,590 last year. The city also rolled out new grading, erosion and sediment control permitting programs.
  • Launched Stormwater University, which instructs developers, engineers and consultants, as well as citizens, on MS4 mandates.
  • More than doubled the number of cleanup events along city waterways in 2017, to 88 from 37 in 2016, increasing public participation by 54 percent, to 6,014 people. Those volunteers removed 18 tons of trash. “We now have the capacity and people in place to run the programs,” says Jerry Cordova, who oversees the volunteer “trash mob” events, “so we can develop them and continue to grow.”
  • Beefed up development inspections, a key EPA lawsuit criticism. While no monetary penalties were imposed, the city stepped up enforcement, issuing 47 compliance actions last year compared to only 16 in 2016.
  • Inspections are more robust, says stormwater manager Rich Mulledy, because the city has more inspectors focused on drainage issues alone. “If you do a lot more inspections,” he says, “you’re going to catch more.” And the city did. It issued six stop-work orders last year, compared to only two in 2016, and 41 letters of noncompliance, the step that precedes a stop-work order — triple the 14 issued in 2016.

    Pockets of noncompliance, such as Wolf Ranch in the northeast, which gave rise to 23 percent of last year’s enforcement actions, stem from multiple adjacent job sites, Mulledy says. “We have a lot of different home builders and different contractors, and they’re all trying to play in the same sandbox, and they step on each other’s toes. You might have 100 pieces of equipment being used by 20 to 30 different companies.”

    Mulledy also warns against thinking that no monetary fines means no penalties. “Stop-work — that’s a very serious thing. That is a big deal,” he says. “They can’t work till it’s fixed.” Which is why stop-work orders span only a day or so, he says.

    The industry is aware of the heightened scrutiny, says Kevin Walker, spokesperson for the Housing & Building Association of Colorado Springs. That’s why the HBA instituted “Wet Wednesdays,” a series of tutorials about drainage rules for builders and developers.

    But it’s worth noting that builders applaud the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back clean-water and stormwater-runoff regulations. The HBA even funded EPA director Scott Pruitt’s “luxury hotel stay” at The Broadmoor in October 2017, according to Politico, which quoted HBA CEO Renee Zentz as saying it was “our chance to make sure the concerns of our industry are being listened to.”

    It’s not publicly known if the EPA’s lawsuit was discussed during Pruitt’s visit, but there’s been no filing that hints a negotiated settlement is imminent. Still, the March 26 letter from the state, Pueblo County and the Lower Ark says they “are now seriously concerned about whether the EPA continues to share our commitment to working together to protect Fountain Creek…”

    The CDPHE tells the Indy in an email the letter’s intent was to “reiterate the importance … of remedying the ongoing discharge of pollutants” into the Arkansas River watershed.

    But Lower Ark’s Jay Winner is more pointed: “I think there is a genuine distrust that the EPA may try to cut a deal,” he says. “We’re hoping that doesn’t happen. We’ve got to live with Fountain Creek for a very, very long time. Colorado Springs is doing a great job. Mayor Suthers is doing a great job. But we had a mayor before him [Steve Bach] that wasn’t doing a good job, and I don’t know if the mayor after John Suthers is going to do a good job.”

    More coverage of the Colorado Springs stormwater enterprise from Pam Zubeck writing for the Colorado Springs Independent:

    Starting July 2, billings for the city’s Stormwater Enterprise will be mailed to all Colorado Springs residents and property owners.

    The charges were authorized by voters last November under a 20-year plan that would raise roughly $20 million a year. The fee revenue will free up general fund money Mayor John Suthers and City Council had previously committed to its 20-year, $460-million deal with Pueblo County for projects to reduce erosion and flooding along Fountain Creek and other waterways. That general fund money, in turn, will be used for other purposes, such as hiring more cops.

    Since the November vote, the city has been working to set up billing procedures. Residential billings, including those for apartment dwellers, will be made by Colorado Springs Utilities, with one exception. Multi-family buildings that don’t have individual apartment water meters will be handled under nonresidential rates.

    City CFO Charae McDaniel says water service connections will trigger the stormwater fee for residential properties. Residential fee payers who don’t pay the $5 charge on their utility bills will be subject to disconnect under standard Utilities policies, which require payment within 14 days of the billing date. Utilities spokesman Steve Berry wouldn’t say how long Utilities provides service for overdue accounts, but it assesses a $20 fee for disconnection. Reconnection costs $30 during normal business hours and $40 after hours.

    If a residential customer refuses to pay the $5 fee, it rolls onto the next bill. If left unpaid for a period of time, accumulated fees could exceed the usage billings for water, sewer, electric and gas.

    “That couldn’t continue in perpetuity,” Berry says. “They [customers] will then eventually go into arrears, and they would be eligible for disconnection. There’s a point it becomes untenable for the customer, and they would be held responsible, just as in nonpayment of any service we offer.” But, Berry notes, Utilities gives customers “plenty of opportunity” to pay bills prior to disconnection.

    Nonresidential property owners of developed tracts up to 5 acres will be billed $30 per acre per month; if the land isn’t developed at all, no fee will be assessed. Owners of properties larger than 5 acres will be assessed $30 per acre per month on only those portions that are developed. Portions of those properties that remain in a natural state won’t be assessed a fee. Undeveloped land won’t pay any fee.

    There are currently 1,005 parcels that are over 5 acres that will be charged a fee, city spokesperson Jamie Fabos says. McDaniel says when properties are developed, based on monthly reports from the El Paso County Assessor’s Office, they’ll be added to the stormwater fee rolls.

    But Assessor Steve Schleiker says he changes a tract’s status only once a year, on Jan. 1, for tax purposes, and doesn’t generate a monthly report regarding development status; rather, those reports merely describe changes to property ownership.

    Asked about that, Fabos says, “Although we will be receiving monthly updates from the assessor’s office that show current ownership, acreage, and use, each property will be determined as developed or undeveloped by aerial investigation and through additional GIS technologies.” She adds that updates to parcel status will be made every six months — meaning new, nonresidential construction might not be assessed the fees until six months after they’re built.

    Nonresidential customers — which includes businesses, industry, churches, nonprofits and governments, including the city — won’t face disconnection of utility bills, because the city, not Utilities, will collect the fees. Nor will they be assessed late fees.

    “We will be going through collection processes if they become delinquent on the nonresidential side,” McDaniel says, meaning a collection agency could be used. If the fees become 150 days past due, she says, “We will process a lien on the property and record that with El Paso County to be added to property taxes.” That procedure carries a cost of 10 percent of the bill.

    Last fall, City Council President Richard Skorman said nonresidential billing information should be made public. Now, McDaniel says the City Attorney’s Office has said stormwater fees fall under the Colorado Open Records Act’s exemption for utility bills, so they’ll be kept confidential.

    That means citizens, or the media, can’t check how much various tracts are being assessed in stormwater fees.

    “It’s an issue I’d like to bring up,” Skorman says, “because I did make that promise, and I didn’t check with lawyers at the time, and I said, of course we would reveal it.”

    One possible alternative, he says, would be for Council to direct an appointed stormwater fee advisory committee to analyze and monitor fees assessed to assure they’re applied fairly. “That’s something that we definitely want to put in place,” he says.

    Moving forward, the fees can be raised by Council action, but only to satisfy a court order, comply with federal or state laws or permits, or fund the agreement with Pueblo County.

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