I encourage Colorado Springs to put the stormwater issue to bed for the next 20 years by voting for city question 2A. The structure of 2A is not perfect, but it is simple and sufficient for moving the community forward. Having concerns about any initiative is normal, but at some point we must accept the 70 percent solution as good enough for action.
Ten years after starting, we have no defined funding stream to take care of the stormwater problem we create as we urbanize. Urbanization alters the direction, magnitude, duration and quality of water flows that result from outdoor irrigation and storm events in developed settings. Some opponents to 2A have tried to pin the problem on land developers. That’s nonsensical and misleading. Developers respond to market demand to urbanize with private capital by building facilities and infrastructure in conjunction with our local governments. For at least two decades, going back to the early days of stormwater awareness, the city of Colorado Springs has required water be detained on new development sites via ponds and developers have complied. Developers have also paid drainage fees to the city to help cover a pro rata share of drainage issues created away from their development. This is not to say the process was perfect, but don’t oppose 2A “because developers create the problem.” Take responsibility for our problem.
A 2012 Summit Economics’ whitepaper outlining the options for addressing stormwater forewarned: “Inaction is the loss of self-determination. The consequences of inaction regarding stormwater funding … may include regulatory enforcement, litigation, further deterioration of public infrastructure and the natural environment, continued risks to property and public safety, and the continued opportunity loss of potential recreational assets” (p.8). Unfortunately, our forecasts came true in 2015 when the Environmental Protection Agency, Colorado Department of Health, Lower Arkansas River water providers and the city of Pueblo sued Colorado Springs for inaction. Pueblo, as our downstream neighbors, felt betrayed by Colorado Springs forming a stormwater enterprise during the permitting process for the Southern Delivery System, only to close the enterprise after Pueblo cooperated to help ensure our fresh water supply. Don’t blame Pueblo. We would feel misled under similar circumstances.
Neither should we blame the EPA which, granted, is known for overreach when it comes to regulations. While I oppose government intrusion in many cases, often arguing for market-based solutions to community problems, such is not the case with stormwater since our inaction, no matter how small or innocent, can negatively impact the lives of others in dramatic ways. In this sense, stormwater is a moral issue. We should abide by the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you [Matt. 7:12]). There would be no need for “overreach” if we accepted our duty as good neighbors. Today, there are well over 500 stormwater utilities throughout the nation, and even more communities with dedicated funding streams, charging fees to fund the systems. It is clear Colorado Springs stubbornly lags the nation in fixing this with sustainable funding.
Some attempt to justify a “no” vote by claiming the city of Colorado Springs has plenty of money and is only getting richer given a robust economy. They insist we should fund stormwater out of the general fund. Remember, robust economies don’t last forever and the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights formula allows for no real government growth after adjusting for inflation and population increases. Given stormwater is a new moral mandate that has only surfaced in the last few decades, under current arrangements stormwater can only be funded if we give up something else. What else should we give up? To Mayor John Suthers’ credit, he has been forthright about what we will be giving up — additional police and fire services that are already understaffed.
I strongly encourage citizens of Colorado Springs to support 2A. The 2A initiative is simple, straightforward and limited to 20 years. Its passage allows us to take the needed long-term perspective, settle litigation and do what is right. Trying to find a perfect solution or refusing to truly understand the problem is inaction. From everything I’ve seen related to stormwater over the last 10 years, continued inaction will only lead to far worse consequences as this is an unavoidable issue.
Tom Binnings is a senior partner of Summit Economics who co-authored a study in 2012 on the regional stormwater challenge. The whitepaper study and its appendix can be found at summiteconomics.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/WHITE_PAPER_REPORT-FINAL.pdf). His opinion here is personal and does not represent an official position of Summit Economics.