By JOSIE MCCAULEY
Plastic bottles, old blankets, shopping carts, and broken glass litter the banks of Fountain Creek in downtown Colorado Springs. This stretch of river looks, and even smells, polluted. “It’s the dirtiest.” Said Alan Peak, a former fly fishing guide who now regularly fishes Fountain Creek. “It’s the least taken care of amenity creek in an urban area in Colorado.”
“It’s a point on the river where people thought that fish couldn’t possibly live,” Peak said. Yet this very spot, polluted as it may be, contains both brown and rainbow trout.
Peak didn’t always fish Fountain Creek, however. He guided about a thousand trips on the South Platte before he no longer felt comfortable guiding there. The river was becoming too overcrowded — not to mention the environmental impact such numbers were having on the fish.
“The South Platte isn’t nearly as polluted as Fountain Creek, but the fish on the South Platte have become more and more unhealthy,” Peak said. He tells of trout with broken jaws, trout that are skinny and visibly unhealthy. “Fish with big sores, and tumors … and gill lice … those fish are showing signs of distress,” Peak added.
For the former fly-fishing guide, the South Platte River, previously a gold standard for fly fishing in Colorado, has changed. But the fish he’s catching now in Fountain Creek show no signs of that. Not only has Peaks been catching lots of them, they’ve been healthy. “They’re eating well,” Peak said.
There are certainly fish in the river, said Fran Silva-Blayney, chair of the Fountain Creek Water Sentinels Sierra Club Issue Team. “Whether or not the fish survive so long is another story,” she said. She has questions as to health problems that aren’t visible when just looking at a fish.
“Fountain Creek is an impaired waterway due to E. coli and selenium,” said Silva-Blayney. In a Colorado State University at Pueblo study, electroshock fishing resulted in the recording of six different species of fish in Fountain Creek, including brown and rainbow trout. All of the 111 fish caught contained mercury and selenium in their tissue.
There have been challenges over the quality of Fountain Creek in the past. In 2004, the Sierra Club sued the city of Colorado Springs over the quality of the Fountain Creek watershed; the Sierra Club won the suit in 2009. The water is polluted, but it’s unclear whether in this case the responsibility still lies with the city of Colorado Springs.
The United States Geological Survey also conducted an evaluation of fecal contamination (E. coli) in Fountain Creek in 2008 and found that the amounts were above state standards. According to Silva-Blayney, E. coli contamination is a continuing problem in Fountain Creek.
Another continuing problem is contamination by polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, that likely occurred as a result of military training. Polyfluoroalkyl substances contamination in the drinking water has led to the filing of a $17 million lawsuit.
These PFAS are known to bioaccumulate in humans and wildlife, but no research has been conducted on the wildlife in the Fountain Creek to examine levels of contamination. Cory Noble, aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said that “trout don’t bioaccumulate toxins as heavily as other species do,” which may contribute to their ability to survive in degraded waters such as those of Fountain Creek.
High levels of sedimentation make for an even less hospitable environment for the fish. “The substrate becomes very silty and sandy, which is not a good environment for fish,” said Silva-Blayney. Both Peak and Noble also said the sedimentation might be harmful to the survival of both trout and macroinvertebrates, a major food source for trout. When it comes to the macroinvertebrate population in Fountain Creek, Noble “would not expect it to be exceptionally good.”
The fish are there (and Peak can show you photographic evidence), as are the necessary aquatic biology, including mayflies and bugs that trout eat. But how are they able to survive in such conditions? And how did they get there in the first place?
Direct stocking would explain this phenomena, but Noble of CPW said, “We do not stock fish directly into Fountain Creek.” Both Peak and Noble say that stocking is occurring in a children’s fishing club in Manitou Springs that may indirectly contribute. When water levels get high, fish are able to escape into Fountain Creek and travel downriver to their current location. Through overflows of stocked streams and reservoirs, indirect stocking is likely occurring in Fountain Creek.
Essentially, these fish are alive and seemimgly thriving. But by many measures, they shouldn’t be. The big, unanswered question is why? More research and investment by the community will be required before we can find the answer.
Fountain Creek stands out as an anomaly. In other Colorado cities and towns, including Boulder, Longmont, and Steamboat Springs, the rivers that run through urban areas are prized pieces of the community, and are even fly fishing destinations. Even Denver is making major efforts toward this with the South Platte. But the same can’t be said for Colorado Springs.
Though there have been some efforts by different groups to clean up the river, a large-scale revitalization isn’t in the works. A big part of this is cost. “Cleaning up and revitalizing the urban areas of Fountain Creek would be a major expense, and one that we as a city don’t seem ready to pay,” said Peak.
“We need to get the community to think of Fountain Creek and its tributaries as amenities,” said Silva-Blayney. She said that a healthy Fountain Creek would be both an economic and recreational opportunity for Colorado Springs.
The present picture of Fountain Creek might not be a pretty one, but hope for a better, cleaner river remains, especially with Cory Noble. “Think of what it could be if it wasn’t polluted,” he said, “and there weren’t people doing drugs and you didn’t have to worry about stepping on crack pipes. What could it be.”