Money Down the Drain? The Essential Nature of Stormwater Infrastructure

On November 7, Colorado Springs residents will vote once again on one of the most contentious issues in the city’s recent history: the management of stormwater runoff.

The ballot in question proposes instating a fee that would charge residential property owners $5 per month and all commercial property owners $30 per acre per month for the next 20 years. The fee would generate approximately $17 million each year to be used by the city government to prevent contaminants, silt, and trash resulting from heavy storms from getting into Monument and Fountain Creeks and adversely affecting our downstream neighbors.

Colorado Springs City Councilman Richard Skorman painted a vivid picture of why we need to do something about our stormwater. “If you go to the confluence of Fountain Creek and the Arkansas River, you will witness a huge brown river, Fountain Creek, going into a clear one, the Arkansas. By the time the Arkansas gets to the Gulf of Mexico, it provides drinking water for 180 communities. We are a huge polluter,” he said.

He’s right. We have a serious stormwater problem and it will take significant monetary investment to fix. However, the proposed fee is not the right solution. Rather than placing the relative weight of the fee primarily on developers and big business, who are responsible for much of the problem, it will unfairly charge the residents of Colorado Springs.

The city first imposed a stormwater fee in 2005, but it was short-lived. In 2009, City Council cancelled the fee due to strong public opposition, and in 2014, a proposal to reinstate the fee was defeated handily in a city-wide election. Last November, residents voted to allow the city to keep $12 million in excess tax revenue in order to build stormwater related infrastructure. This November voters will decide on a ballot issue regarding stormwater for the third time in the 12 years that this problem has been debated.

In November 2016, the issue became a little more urgent. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), joined by the Colorado State Department of Health, filed suit against Colorado Springs for its mismanagement of stormwater runoff. Between fines, legal fees, and court-ordered infrastructure construction, the lawsuit could end up costing the city a lot of money—so the city government has been scrambling to fix the stormwater runoff problem before any legal action formally begins. 

All of this begs the question: why is stormwater in Colorado Springs such a big problem, and why is there so much debate over how to fix it?

Colorado Springs is well-situated to have stormwater problems. As Councilman Skorman explained, “We are the only big city in Colorado with no river to absorb its runoff. Everything that goes down our drains, spills on our pavement, and is put on our lawns ends up in Fountain Creek and in the Arkansas River. Then, if you add all the impervious surfaces we have built and the fact that our geography curses us with huge elevation loss and highly erodible soil, it’s a perfect storm.” And unlike most major American cities, we don’t have a fee dedicated to stormwater management. This is a key argument of the November ballot measure’s supporters, and rightfully so: if every other major city in the country has one, we probably should too. But there are some more complex factors at play.

During an open discussion on the fees in City Hall this August, Councilman Bill Murray argued forcefully against the fees saying, “Where I come from, the penalty should fit the crime. The cost of the stormwater fee is the direct result of our inability to enforce our stormwater requirements.” Murray is referring to a number of developers in Colorado Springs who, while building on properties in the city, submitted plans for dealing with stormwater that were clearly inadequate, but that the city approved anyway. Because so many land developers were never forced to deal with their runoff, the city’s stormwater problem went from bad to very bad. Logically, the developers should shoulder a greater share of the burden of fixing it.

I had the opportunity to talk to Douglas Bruce, a former Colorado state legislator, anti-tax activist, and author of the controversial Colorado Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR). He argues that the city is milking its residents for money, putting unnecessary financial strain on low-income households. “The grandma who lives in a trailer pays the same as someone in a mansion in the Broadmoor—that’s a regressive tax,” Bruce said. He also argued that the city government relaxed regulations on developers and is now forcing residents to pay for it. “The city created the stormwater issue by subsidizing developers and giving them a free pass instead of forcing them to pay to deal with their stormwater. And they did that intentionally,” he said. Though Bruce and I likely disagree on many topics, I’m with him on this one. The City Council’s plans are a gift to corporations at the expense of taxpayers, particularly low-income ones. 

With that said, come November I will probably vote for the proposed fees. Colorado Springs has already signed an intergovernmental agreement with Pueblo County that mandates we spend $460 million on stormwater infrastructure over the next 20 years, and the money has to come from somewhere. The risk of not honoring the agreement and inviting further legal action is severe, and the fees are only $5 a month. 

But in an ideal world, the city government would devise a better plan—one that would raise the revenue they need by holding developers accountable instead of overburdening the poor—and put that on the ballot in November.   

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