Fountain Creek too bleak?
City touts flood work; citizens decry tree loss, spending priorities
In years to come, as 300-some new trees grow to maturity, Westside acceptance of the city's Fountain Creek drainage work
west of Eighth Street may grow as well.
But for now, Colorado Springs Stormwater Engineer Ken Sampley can only point to the grassy, barren drainageway and express his professional belief that the work completed there this fall under the 1999 Springs Community Improvements Program (SCIP) represents, as he put it, “dramatically increased flood protection” for the area.
That work, between the Eighth Street Bridge and a mobile home park was Phase B of a two-phase, $9,943,000 project. Phase A involved similar drainage upgrades, including debris clean-up, flow-slowing “drop structures” (strategic placement of rocks in the stream to create what look like mini-waterfalls), a maintenance path that could someday become a public trail, and bank stabilization/revegetation in a 700-foot section east of 21st Street where a bridge takes Highway 24 motorists over Fountain Creek. In addition, a tributary outfall going under 21st Street from the south side of Highway 24 had to be rebuilt.
But the greater expense - not to mention visibility from Highway 24 - is in the roughly half-mile Phase B area. This was an area once known for thickly growing trees, in and around the creek. According to Sampley, most of those trees were “volunteer trees” - elms that had planted themselves, with roots so intertwined there was no way of removing some without removing all.
However, Westside residents, such as Rose Kliewer, recall graceful old cottonwoods as well. “It's just a big change from 100- year vegetation to new trees,” said Kliewer, a board member of the Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN). She, like others who haven't walked the creek near Eighth since the project finished, was surprised to hear the extent of the project- related revegetation, which, when bushes and shrubs are included, totals more than 6,000 plantings in all.
The most prominent criticism has come from City Council member Tom Gallagher and past council member (now county commissioner-elect) Sallie Clark, both of whom are also past presidents of OWN. “The city totally botched it,” said Gallagher, who had a personal stake in the project: He was one of the 26 mobile home park residents who had to be relocated as a result of the creek being widened and realigned.
Positive that the project should have been planned better, he noted that anticipated costs for relocation and land acquisition had been minimal in the original project budget, whereas they came to more than $4 million (over 2/5 of the total) in the final project tally. He also questioned the effectiveness of the flood control itself - observing that part of the trailer park is still within the flood plain.
Clark believes the city failed to explain clearly what the project would entail. She noted that extensive tree removal was not in the initial scope, nor was it emphasized at later public meetings. “We didn't know till they tore out all the trees, and we said 'What happened here?' but it was too late and everyone was calling the city,” Clark said. “Now we've got this area that looks like a nuclear bomb went through.”
The project dates back to 1999, when voters approved $11,575,025 in Fountain Creek drainage improvements from Monument Creek to 21st Street as part of the SCIP bond election. The initial expectation was that the improvements would follow the recommendations in the Fountain Creek Drainage Basin Planning Study from the early '90s. That study “did not call for a lot of widening,” Sampley recalled. In fact, the segment near Eighth Street was potentially seen as “real narrow, with a concrete channel,” he said.
However, as city engineers started looking closer at the drainage and holding public meetings with residents over a 1-½ year span of 1999 and 2000, a new plan started taking shape - one that called for a wider, natural channel that would allow “additional capacity for runoff,” Sampley said.
The Eighth Street bridge also affected the plans. According to Sampley, the creek used to come into it at a 45-degree angle, which was bad news for its south-side buttresses. Worse, the bridge is undersized, constricting the flow. So a decision was made to alter the creek path to come in perpendicular to the bridge.
The combination of these design changes meant the need to acquire about 11 acres of commercial and trailer park property land. Nearly all the businesses (15) on the south side of the creek (along Garner Street) were relocated in the process, in addition to many more mobile home residents than originally expected.
That added cost prevented the city from doing any of the originally anticipated improvements between Fountain Creek's Phase A and B, as well as east of the Eighth Street bridge, Sampley said. The area between A and B is owned by Gold Hill Mesa Township LLC, which is building the 214-acre Gold Hill Mesa commercial/residential development between Fountain Creek and Gold Camp Road.
In deciding priorities, Sampley said the Gold Hill Mesa segment was less crucial because no one lives there yet. As for the portion east of Eighth Street, although some clearing is needed, the creek path is “fairly stable,” he said.
(For the record, the segment between the Eighth street bridge and Monument Creek has been divided since the '99 election between the Fountain and Confluence Park SCIP projects. The Fountain segment stops where the creek goes under Highway 24 just past the hotel. An article with updated information on the Confluence segment appears on the next page.)
Gallagher's reaction to the amount of work done on the Fountain drainage was that “I never did figure out why it cost so much to do so little.” Regarding the decision to leave out the Gold Hill Mesa section, the council member said the effect would be to put the burden of the improvements on the developer. “Bob Willard [manager of the LLC] got stuck with the whole boatload,” Gallagher said.
Asked about this, Willard said that all in all he felt the city has been fair with him, and that the Urban Renewal designation the city has provided for Gold Hill will help make public-related work such as his creek improvements more financially bearable.
Gold Hill did work with the city on its Fountain Creek project, ensuring that any soil taken out during the excavation in Phases A and B were trucked back up to the property. This had the win-win effect of getting potentially toxic soils out of the drainage area and giving needed fill dirt to the developer, Sampley said. (Note: When buildings are constructed in the Gold Hill Mesa project, a layer of clean dirt must be on top, according to the approved development plans.)
Regarding mobile homes still in the flood plain, Sampley did not dispute that fact, but pointed to city studies showing a reduced threat of high water: 10 homes reportedly would get a foot of water in a 100-year flood, as opposed to 71 before. Two feet is the most any would get, compared with 8 feet or more previously.
The wider channel has also taken everything else in the area out of the 100-year plain, including Highway 24 itself, the studies show.
He clarified one story, reported in a daily newspaper a few years ago, that the barren appearance resulted in part from a contractor accidentally removing trees. According to Sampley, “maybe 5 or 10” trees that had been tagged for keeping had been destroyed that way. He added that, although the contractor was penalized for the error, the fact was that the trees really should never have been so tagged. “I went out and looked at them,” he said. “They were in the creek, and there's no way they could have been salvaged.”
An offshoot of the project's financial restructuring was that the costs for the work wound up about $1.5 million less than the voter-approved amount. Deciding this was not enough money to do major additional work on the project (such as bridge replacements), City Council went along with Engineering recommendations to transfer those funds to two somewhat-related SCIP projects - Fountain Creek in Confluence Park ($750,000) and Shooks Run ($505,000).
As a council member, Clark raised red flags over these transfers. “It's like a shell game of moving money around,” she said. “I don't think it's right to move funds around and leave one project so badly incomplete.”
Sampley, on the other hand, believes the project was done well and done effectively. Now all he needs is a growth spurt for the drainage area's new trees and bushes…
Westside Pioneer articleNote: An article next issue will look at Gold Hill Mesa’s plans for Fountain Creek drainage improvements in the coming year.