Fountain Creek could be a big economic driver for the Pikes Peak region — but it needs some serious work first.
Public officials and utilities workers are considering plans to upgrade the creek, which include turning part of it into a recreational draw similar to what Pueblo has done with its Arkansas Riverwalk, which winds through its downtown.
But there are a number of construction and community hurdles to overcome before that happens.
Work to overcome those hurdles is getting started, thanks to a few inter-county agreements, the formation of a watershed district, and the cooperation of about eight different cities that are affected. What the creek needs now, experts agree, is support from the community itself.
“I think people need to fall in love with the creek, before they really feel like they have to save the creek,” said Carol Baker, an environmental engineer who is in charge of repairing Fountain Creek for Colorado Springs Utilities.
The municipal utility is spending $50 million to repair erosion damage and mediating other problems that cause flooding along Fountain Creek. It’s also leveraging that money to make a few other improvements, such as a fish ladder to help migrating fish navigate the man-made obstacles in the creek.
The creek is largely ignored by people in El Paso County, and that disregard has created some serious issues throughout the watershed. The railroad was allowed to straighten the creek, which leads to higher water flows and more erosion. Graffiti and neglect at other parts of the creek are also taking their toll.
Baker wants to change the years of neglect and turn the creek’s watershed into an outdoor destination. She envisions people watching birds, riding bikes and tubing down Fountain Creek.
“I really think getting people into the creek, that’s the key to getting support to make it better,” she said. “But we have some serious work to do before we’re at that phase.”
The work needed for that to happen means mitigating years of erosion that have cut high cliffs into the creek bed in some places, creating curves in other places to slow the flow of water during floods and creating diversions for flood water in other places.
“It’s beautiful down here,” she said. “And most people don’t realize that there are public trails along here.”
She’s talking about Clear Springs Ranch, a property owned by the city that Utilities leases to a farmer.
It allows the farmer to take water from the creek for its crops, and then uses water from wells to operate the power plant. It’s this stretch of Fountain Creek that Utilities is focused on as part of its agreement with Pueblo County to build the Southern Delivery System, a network of pipes that will bring water to the Springs from Pueblo Reservoir.
“And some of it is easy,” she said. “How do you stop the undercutting of the bank — just move dirt from the top of the bank to the bottom, so when it floods, the water no longer tears off huge parts of the bank and carries it downstream.”
Community leaders in El Paso County applaud the utilities’ efforts with Fountain Creek — but they also feel they are short-sighted.
“I support SDS,” said El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark. “But I don’t think all the improvements, all the focus should be south of Fountain — I don’t think improvements should only be related to SDS.”
Clark wants to see improvements throughout the entire watershed. Erosion at Rainbow Falls in Manitou Springs is a serious problem because of Highway 24, she said.
“I just think there are a lot of opportunities — it can be a real economic driver for the city, particularly downtown,” she said. “That’s where the focus should be.”
In many ways, Clark’s vision mirrors Baker’s — but she wants to include America the Beautiful Park and the United States Olympic Committee. She would like to see an Olympic Plaza, with Fountain Creek as a focal point downtown.
“Pueblo’s done a great job with their riverwalk,” she said. “And in Oklahoma City, they did amazing things with a river that wasn’t much deeper than Fountain Creek. We should take some of the things that worked in other cities, and use them as a template for improvements here.”
Clark wants to create public-private partnerships to find the money for the type of improvements she wants to see along Fountain Creek. She believes that the cities involved — from Monument, Manitou Springs, Colorado Springs and Fountain — can get together with businesses to create major change along the creek.
“This could be a real jewel,” she said. “We haven’t really leveraged what we have here — and we should. We can get people on board, and we need to start the conversation, so we can find funding from nongovernmental sources.”
She points to improvements to Fountain Creek in Manitou Springs. The city partnered with Trout Unlimited, a private organization, to make those improvements.
“We need everyone at the table,” she said. “Utilities certainly should be involved.”
But that is a different set of plans, says Janet Rummel, SDS spokesperson for Colorado Springs Utilities. The $50 million set aside for Fountain Creek can only be spent on fixing the creek’s flooding and erosion problems.
“We can’t spend it on recreation,” she said. “We can’t spend it just anywhere. We have to spend it as we agreed to do with Pueblo County — to make sure their levees hold and to make sure the water quality stays high.”
But if utilities can’t use the $50 million for Fountain Creek downtown, that doesn’t mean plans are going to be tabled again. It’s time for the business community to get involved in the conversation, said Stephannie Finley, president of government affairs for the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce. After a recent chamber-sponsored trip to Oklahoma City, she believes it’s time to work on turning Fountain Creek into an economic driver.
“I was also at the Platte River in Denver this week,” she said. “And you wouldn’t believe the energy, the commerce that it was attracting. We need to do this here — and we’re going to start taking some action now.”
What Fountain Creek needs is a champion, Finley said. Someone — or some group — needs to lead the charge. The chamber is working on part of that effort, asking their new federal lobbyist to seek federal money for developing Fountain Creek.
Chris Jenkins of Nor’wood Development will be involved in discussions to revitalize Fountain Creek near downtown, he said. His company has an interest in Palmer Village, a mixed-use plan in an urban renewal district close to both Fountain Creek and America the Beautiful Park.
“It’s a beautiful park,” he said. “And the creek runs through it. In early planning phases, Marylou Makepeace wanted to add some sort of community amenity — kayaks, boats, canoes.”
Then came the drought, and after that, tough economic times. Both Jenkins and Clark believe it’s time to dust off those old plans.
“It’s exciting that this is gaining some momentum,” Jenkins said. “There’s a huge potential there. Water as an attraction always draws people, and we need a draw there. It’s time to get some of the other downtowners involved to capture what exists there naturally, and enhancing it.”
The number of municipalities located within the watershed. (Woodland Park, Green Mountain Falls, Manitou Springs, Monument, Palmer Lake, Colorado Springs, Fountain and Pueblo)
The percentage of Colorado Springs drinking water
from the creek
The percentage of water that is pumped over the Continental Divide, treated and discharged into Fountain Creek.