Colorado Springs officials want to continue their aggressive campaign to overhaul the city’s drainage system, and that will take more money. A lot more.
On Feb. 8, two options were outlined for raising existing stormwater fees to fund millions of dollars in projects, largely due to the city’s settlement of an Environmental Protection Agency lawsuit. That consent decree calls for the city to spend $45 million in the next 15 years to stem flows and reduce pollution of waterways from runoff.
While the city looks to raise stormwater rates by up to 70 percent in the next three years to generate that cash, though, it’s also recrafting development and zoning rules to increase “lot coverage” in new subdivisions. That means bigger homes with greater impervious surfaces that yield more runoff.
Those moves seem counterintuitive to the city’s goal to control or even reduce the city’s storm flows.
As the EPA’s website says, “Perhaps the most defining characteristic of urban streams is the increased amount and rapidity of stormwater or surface runoff to those systems.”
That’s due to large impervious surfaces — concrete and rooftops — that come with urbanization, which multiplies storm runoff as compared to natural surfaces, such as grass, gardens and mulch.
But the city’s stormwater manager Richard Mulledy doesn’t view the idea of reducing home sites’ permeable surface as being in conflict with the city’s desire to control stormwater.
That’s because the city’s regulations require developers to compensate for runoff from their projects, whether they contain lots of grass or large impermeable rooftops.
“The criteria currently requires the capture and treatment of 100 percent of the post development flows,” he said in an email.
Of course, that strategy relies on strict enforcement of the city’s rules, which didn’t happen in the past. Neglect and failure to enforce developer requirements to build sufficient drainage facilities led to the 2016 EPA lawsuit and a subsequent court finding that the city was derelict in holding developers accountable.
Mulledy says the city now strictly enforces its rules, noting that issuance of noncompliance notices has multiplied 21 times over in the last five years.
A longer-range vision adopted by some cities shifts how new subdivisions and infill development take shape from “gray” solutions (concrete channels) to green methods that both curtail storm flows and improve water quality.
Mulledy, too, is interested in that approach.
The city has studied how to fund stormwater controls since at least the 1990s. As the city grew, storm flows increased, aggravating neighbors to the south, notably Pueblo County, as runoff volumes raged down Fountain Creek, eroding its banks as it wound toward a confluence with the Arkansas River near Pueblo.
In 2007, the city adopted fees for stormwater, without voter approval, based on the impervious surface of each property in the city. The idea was simple: The more concrete on a lot and the larger a building’s roof, the more that property owner paid to the city to deal with storm runoff caused by that property. Those with large lawns and small houses contributed less to the drainage problem, so they paid less.
The city collected fees under that model for about three years but scrapped them in 2009 after voters approved a measure that some said conflicted with a voter-approved ballot measure dictating how city enterprises operate, including the Stormwater Enterprise. The measure gained popularity due to residents’ opposition to a “rain tax” being imposed in 2007 without a vote of the people.
For years thereafter, the city struggled to fund adequate drainageways and maintain existing ones. Ultimately, the city flunked two inspections by regulators of its compliance with the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit for discharge of stormwater into waterways, triggering the EPA lawsuit.
Federal and state authorities alleged the city violated the Clean Water Act by neglecting its stormwater system. Pueblo County and the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District later joined the lawsuit as plaintiffs.
In 2017, Mayor John Suthers and Council asked voters to approve a stormwater fee program that would levy $5 per month per residential property citywide, regardless of the lot’s size and permeable surface, and $30 per acre for non-residential property. The measure authorized Council to raise the rates, without voter approval, if the increase was used to fund a court judgment.
Now, Council is eying invoking that power to fund the city’s $45 million settlement figure over the next 15 years.
That’s in addition to $460 million the city agreed to spend on 71 projects in an intergovernmental agreement with Pueblo County that spans 20 years.
The IGA was finalized in April 2016 in exchange for Pueblo County not impeding the city’s activation of the Southern Delivery System, an $825 million water pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir to eastern Colorado Springs. Pueblo County has some say over the massive project under 1041 powers, named after a bill that spelled out local control of construction of public projects that cross county lines.
Staff proposed two options for the new rate increase, which would take effect July 1, 2021. After three years of increases, rates would remain static through 2035.
• Residential rates of $5 a month would increase to $6.50 this year, $7.50 next year and $8.50 in 2023. This represents a 70 percent increase.
• Non-residential rates of $30 per acre per month would go up to $38 in 2021, $40 in 2022 and $42 in 2023, an overall increase of 40 percent.
• Residential rates would rise to $7 this year, $7.50 next year and $8 in 2023, a cumulative increase of 60 percent.
• Non-residential rates would increase to $40.50 per acre this year, $43 in 2022 and $45 in 2023, an overall hike of 50 percent.
Council is slated to act on Feb. 23, but Councilor Wayne Williams predicted passage of Option 2, in which residential rates would top at $8 and achieve greater equity with non-residential property.
“When voters approved the Stormwater Enterprise Fee,” Williams said in an email, “we knew that the federal litigation likely would require an increase in the future. The expenditures necessary to resolve the litigation will construct stormwater improvements that will enhance both safety and the environment.”
Moreover, city staff noted the fees, even after the increase, will be lower than the average charged for flood control along the Front Range and nationally.
Stormwater fees generate $16.25 million annually. The Feb. 8 presentation to Council showed the higher rates would increase revenues to about $22.5 million in 2022 and over time raise collections to about $31 million in 2035.
A PLAN FOR BIGGER HOMES
In what might be viewed as a measure that could undermine the city’s campaign to corral and/or dissipate storm flows to reduce pollution, erosion and flooding, the city’s Planning Department proposes to allow greater residential lot coverage.
For example, houses on single-family residential lots of 9,000 square feet could cover 35 percent of the lot, an increase from the current limit of 25 percent.
Similarly, 20,000-square-foot lots now limit a home to 20 percent of the lot but that would increase to 30 percent.
Correspondingly, the setbacks on lots’ front, sides and rear would be decreased. It’s unclear whether those smaller setbacks would curtail the ability for homeowners to plant trees, which the city is encouraging in its 150th anniversary year.
The changes are part of RetoolCOS, a major overhaul of the city’s zoning and use standards across the city. Officials hope to adopt a final version in early 2022.
As staff advised council in backup materials, the city’s consultant proposed updating the dimensional standards to allow more flexibility in single-family developments and to encourage reinvestment in existing neighborhoods via “horizontal home expansions,” which may exceed established lot coverage standards or encroach on setbacks.
RetoolCOS project manager and Principal Planner Morgan Hester said via email the changes are viewed as a way to help homeowners and enable construction of more affordable housing.
The changes in setbacks and structure size, she said, allow homeowners to make minor changes, such as adding a porch, patio extension or small add-on, without requiring them to seek a variance.
As for the changes as they pertain to new construction, Hester said, “Processes like RetoolCOS provide a perfect opportunity to gauge and compare with other comparable cities the practical application of city zoning codes, particularly examples of how the other cities are encouraging infill development, enhancing neighborhood reinvestment and providing alternatives to address housing affordability and attainability.”
But the EPA notes on its website that increasing the impervious surface of a lot diminishes the amounts of runoff that both evaporate and infiltrate the soils, while increasing the amount that winds up in waterways, picking up pollution such as road debris and oil along the way.
If impervious surfaces increase from a range of 10 to 20 percent to a range of 35 to 50 percent, the amount of runoff goes up by a third, the EPA reported.
A study published last year by the Department of Thematic Studies –Environmental Change, Centre for Climate Science and Policy Research, Linköping University, Sweden, offered a new perspective.
It noted an emerging push to manage stormwater “above ground,” rather than through pipes and channels, by urban design[s] that “mimic the natural functions of pre-development hydrology.” Those strategies might include “minimizing impervious cover by promoting infiltration, ponding and the harvesting of rainwater.”
Study author Anna Bohman said via email, “There are many ways of taking care of stormwater locally on the property or in the developing area that prevents the generation of new and additional stormwater into the existing system.”
YaleEnvironment360, an online magazine that hosts debate and analysis on global environmental issues, published an article in 2013 by Dave Levitan that reported “green” solutions to stormwater are gaining traction over simply installing more storm sewers and concrete flumes.
Levitan reported that nationwide 10 trillion gallons of rainwater a year flow over rooftops and roads, picking up contaminants ranging from oil to pesticides.
But some big cities, such as Philadelphia and Seattle, are turning to methods that deal with stormwater at the street level.
“Green infrastructure mimics how nature handles rainwater through the use of porous surfaces, rather than impervious surfaces like roadways. These techniques are decentralized,” the article said. “Instead of one facility or large underground tank to store water when a big storm hits, the idea is to eliminate the need for such storage through the use of green rooftops, roadside plantings, carefully landscaped parks, rain gardens, rain barrels, and other swatches of nature dropped down inside the landscape of modern cities.”
Such methods also can help cleanse the runoff of pollution.
Mulledy admits that volume of runoff is a big issue, leading the city to develop a Green Infrastructure Manual, which he said will provide planning and engineering guidance on how to develop in a way that reduces the amount of runoff from developed sites.
“This will help to mitigate or offset the increases you are pointing out,” he said.
Hester said the city isn’t calling for changes to residential landscaping standards just yet, but the city is evaluating commercial landscaping standards.
“We would note that mixed-density residential developments do not result in less tree canopy,” she added, pointing to such developments as Gold Hill Mesa, Cordera, Flying Horse and Wolf Ranch, although trees planted there as those areas developed in recent years “still need to mature.”
As for increasing impermeable surfaces through allowing larger houses, Mulledy said even if that change is adopted, it won’t let developers sidestep regulations that require capture and treatment of stormwater from developed sites.
Mulledy further noted the city’s stormwater criteria require developers of any development or redevelopment of greater than 1 acre to consider and report on low-impact development design; capture 100 percent of runoff and treat stormwater flows, including through use of detention; and address channel stabilization if adjacent to a waterway, and provide specific provisions for control of potential pollutants.
He added the Stormwater Enterprise reviewed the RetoolCOS proposal, and “all development is required to comply with the City’s detailed stormwater regulations.
“I do not see the density changes leading to necessary increases in the stormwater fee in the future,” he said.
CITY UPS ITS GAME
Given the city’s failure to regulate how developers satisfied drainage requirements in the past, it’s fair to ask if that’s changed, especially in light of the city’s settlement of the EPA lawsuit.
Mulledy reports the city has upped its game.
In 2016, the year after Mayor Suthers took office, the city conducted 5,319 inspections of stormwater compliance. Last year, city inspectors carried out 7,551 inspections, a 42-percent increase.
In 2016, the city issued 11 letters of noncompliance, which meant the developers had to satisfy city rules before continuing construction. Last year, it issued 236, or 21 times as many. Not only do the figures indicate the city is watching, they also demonstrate that developers need to be watched.
The Stormwater Enterprise also possesses authority to stop work on a project site until inspectors are satisfied the developer meets regulations.
Only two stop-work orders were issued in 2016, but last year, officials imposed 14 such orders.
Cumulatively, during those five years the city conducted 33,024 stormwater inspections, issued 491 non-compliance notices and imposed 38 stop-work orders.
“We do have adequate rules and regulations in place,” Mulledy said. “We definitely have the staff in place to adequately provide oversight.” Inspectors also are subject to regular audits to ensure consistency, he said.
As for paying higher stormwater fees, nobody likes to see a higher bill, but Joyce Martinez gives the city high marks for a project completed on Arcadia Street where she lives. Runoff there had become unmanageable, flooding homes repeatedly because the water concentrated on the street rather than being conveyed through a pipe underground.
Besides adding an underground conveyance, the city also built sidewalks where none existed before.
While Martinez reports rain water still streams down the street and sometimes slops over the curb, she deems the outcome “100 percent better.”
“It’s great,” she said. “I think they did a wonderful job. It’s an improvement.”
In one of the most dramatic overhauls in the stormwater program, the city addressed the gigantic cavern that developed over decades behind Michael Chiaramonte’s home on Popes Valley Drive.
Every time it rained, Chiaramonte’s home was inundated. Water gushed down the hillside, over his property and into his garage and home.
He fought for months to get it fixed, and after the Indy, the Business Journal’s sister publication, published his story in 2014, the city took action.
Today, the former gorge is a flower-covered hillside that slopes toward the house.
Once it was fixed, though, Chiaramonte and his wife left. “We moved about a year after they fixed it,” he said via email. “For the time we were there it seemed to work great ... but I can’t attest to long term viability.”