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Colorado Springs faces $2 million fine, $43 million in projects after proposed stormwater settlement

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KRDO) -- Two years after a judge ruled that the city violated federal stormwater regulations on several occasions, the proposed penalty has been revealed.

The city would pay a fine of $2 million and commit to an additional $43 million in stormwater projects over 15 years, Mayor John Suthers announced earlier this week.

Suthers said "an agreement in principle" exists for a settlement between the city -- the defendant in the case -- and the plaintiffs including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Pueblo County and the lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District.

"We're now entering a 30-day comment period," he said. "At the end of it, the judge will evaluate whether he wants to approve the settlement. I suspect he will."

The mayor said that in the next few weeks, city officials will explain settlement details to the public, and that he already has City Council approval to pay the penalty.

"The federal government would get $1 million of the fine, and the state would get the other half," he said. "The state's share actually goes into a current project in the Arkansas River. That's a lot better than a $12 million fine that was initially discussed."

As a result of the penalty, however, Suthers said the city will have to raise its stormwater fee to homeowners and businesses over the next 15 years to pay the penalty.

"We'll start the process of determining that early next year," he said.

The mayor is relieved that most of the money, except for $125,000 in attorneys' fees, will be spent on stormwater projects and not a fine.

"I think it's very manageable," he said. "And even after we adjust fees, we'll still be paying less than most large cities."

Colorado Springs has been criticized, particularly by Pueblo County, for more than a decade for not doing enough to control drainage (stormwater) that caused sewer line breaks, erosion and poor water quality in Fountain Creek.

Suthers said the city's stormwater issues were a result of inaction by previous city councils, but upon his election as mayor in 2015 he pledged to address the issue and heal the rift between Pueblo County leaders, who had threatened to sue the city.

In fact, in the spring of 2016, Pueblo County agreed on a long-range plan in which the city would spend $460 million over 20 years on 71 stormwater projects, maintenance and enforcement.

To help generate the needed revenue, Suthers in 2017 pushed for the re-establishment of a stormwater fee ultimately passed by voters that November. A previous fee was rescinded in 2011 after complaints from property owners that the fee unfairly charged some customers more than others.

The city hoped its progress on stormwater issues would prevent a lawsuit, but in November 2016 the EPA initially filed suit and the other plaintiffs joined in. U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch presided over the weeklong bench trial in Denver in September 2018, and issued his ruling two months later.

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Scott Harrison

Scott is a reporter for KRDO. Learn more about Scott here.


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