Colorado Springs is now paying the price — to the tune of millions — for its lack of attention to a pressing problem: stormwater drainage.
The Environmental Protection Agency is suing the city for failure to maintain its stormwater infrastructure, for ignoring its own rules and for waiting years to find a permanent funding solution to solve drainage issues. The fines could be well into the seven-figure range, and the EPA doesn’t seem satisfied with the steps taken to address the issue.
Mayor John Suthers initiated a maintenance and drainage program to protect Pueblo from the Springs’ stormwater issues — to the tune of $460 million over the next 20 years. According to reports from the Colorado Springs Independent, the stormwater staff increased from 20 last year to 56 today, with 10 more added next year.
It’s not enough.
Stormwater drainage and infrastructure has been an issue kicked from one city council to the next, from the first strong mayor to the second. And now, it needs to be fixed.
The fix isn’t necessary merely to assuage the federal government’s concern about clean water and flooding, but also to maintain the city’s economic vitality. How many companies will move here with this large issue capturing headlines and attention? How many new homes and new developments will have to contend with stormwater issues left unattended for years?
We need a permanent funding source — one like the defunct stormwater fee program that raised $16 million a year for drainage projects and maintenance. The program ended in 2009, after voters approved an initiative to end the fees.
Council hasn’t addressed it since, only approving the compromise with Pueblo to keep the Southern Delivery System pumping water from Pueblo to the Springs. According to the EPA suit, only $1.6 million annually has been spent on stormwater concerns since 2009.
Other cities have fees — some are based on “impervious cover,” the structures that keep rainwater from seeping into the soil. In Austin, new construction can only cover 40 percent of the site, leaving 60 percent to allow rain to drain into the soil and into its aquifers. The city charges for properties that need to increase their cover and grandfathered existing properties into the plan.
In San Antonio, Texas, the city used aerial photographs and satellite images to determine the amount of impervious cover — and they charge a stormwater fee for any cover that sends water into the stormwater system. The rates start at $3.22 for a residential property that is fewer than 3,999 square feet to $342.03 monthly for commercial properties greater than 132,000 square feet.
These are fees, not taxes. And they don’t inhibit growth in either city. The charges are part of everyone’s utility bill and they benefit the entire city, keeping water draining into the Edwards Aquifer. The arid cities can continue to grow — and by charging for patios, driveways, homes, buildings, roads and sidewalks, they can also maintain the cities’ drainage systems.
There’s no reason Colorado Springs can’t take the same steps. The Housing and Building Association is working to educate its members about the importance of retention ponds and drainage systems. The mayor has signaled he supports a stormwater enterprise to benefit the entire city.
The business community needs to stand behind the city council and Utilities Board of Directors to put a permanent funding solution in place — whatever forms it might take.
It’s time to take action.