Fish habitat questions surface in creek project

       A public complaint by the Cheyenne Mountain Chapter of Trout Unlimited has put a hard spotlight on a project planned this spring by a partnership of Colorado Springs Stormwater Enterprise, Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and the Gold Hill Mesa development group to restore a 2,500-foot stretch of Fountain Creek along Highway 24.

Trout Unlimited dislikes this style of drop structure, installed on Fountain Creek five years ago by Colorado Springs Engineering west of Eighth Street, because the rocks are cemented in place, the reach is too long for fish to climb and the “low-flow” channel is too wide. Photo looks east, with Eighth Street-area businesses in the background.
Westside Pioneer photo

       Believing the partners were ignoring its suggestions, the non-profit outdoor group contacted the media last week with charges that the plan for the $3.6 million project “does not meet widely recognized standards necessary to meet the definition of 'stream restoration' and will actually do more harm than good to the existing biology and ecology of Fountain Creek.”
       Some of Trout Unlimited's criticisms are supported by the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW), which has approval powers because another state agency (CDOT) is involved. Doug Krieger, a senior aquatic biologist with DOW, said that his agency agrees that the project is needed, but “I think it can be done better and cheaper with a more natural configuration.”
       He pinpointed one issue which, if not corrected, he said, could lead to project denial. This concerns the width of the “low flow” channel (where the water typically runs) and how much it meanders within its entire channel (a phenomenon called “sinuosity”). The current plans show the low-flow channel as too wide, he said, meaning that when there's less of a current, the water becomes too shallow, warm and slow-moving. As for sinuosity, which is seen as desirable for fish habitat, the creek now is too straight, Krieger said.
       He criticized Fountain Creek just west of Eighth Street - a city project finished five years ago - as being designed too wide and too straight. He said that as a result it has no fish and a sediment build-up that needs to be dredged periodically (because the flow can get too slow).
       Maintaining or improving fish habitat is part of the requirement under the Senate Bill (SB) 40 law governing DOW's review, Krieger pointed out.

Temporary concrete armoring of the south bank of Fountain Creek can be seen looking southwest from the side of Highway 24. On the far side of the bank is the Gold Hill Mesa property, which is approved for future homes and, farther west, a commercial area. Gold Hill Mesa crews installed the concrete three years ago as part of an agreement with the Colorado Health Department to prevent old mill tailings from washing down the hill and into Fountain Creek. Phase 1 of the planned restoration by Gold Hill, CDOT and the Stormwater Enterprise would include replacement of the temporary armoring west to about the billboard in the background at right, according to Barry Brinton, Gold Hill Mesa property manager.
Westside Pioneer photo

       Trout Unlimited's going public with its complaint has caused varying degrees of dissatisfaction from representatives of the partnership entities, all of whom believe the project as planned will improve that part of the stream in terms of erosion control, flood conveyance, water quality, bank stabilization and in preventing the migration of tailings from the former gold mill southeast of Highway 24 and 21st Street. Bob Willard, Gold Hill Mesa developer, was especially displeased. “I am stunned that an organization such as Trout Unlimited is taking such an extreme position that it could threaten resolution of a longstanding environmental problem that poses a potential threat to health and human safety, and a real threat to fish,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The ordinary fish have already returned and they don't have a well-funded 'lobby' that supports the noble trout. The trout will come back in time.”
       According to Ken Sampley, director of the Stormwater Enterprise, “What we're going to do will be environmentally sound. DOW is not going to sign off if it does not make sense from an environmental standpoint.”
       CDOT plans to meet with DOW next week. “We're trying to come up with ways to work through these issues,” said CDOT engineer Dave Watt. “Everything has a balance. It may not be possible to make it an ideal trout habitat, but that wasn't the intent of the project.”
       Sampley also expressed a willingness to be open-minded - and insisted that his agency already has been. However, he pointed out, a construction time window could be lost if the project gets delayed for a major redesign. Stream-area trees and bushes are part of the plan and they need to be planted in the spring. The plan had been to put the project out to bids by the middle of this month. He could not say how long that start could be delayed before it would be too late to do the project this year.
       Jack Hunter, president of the local Trout Unlimited, said his group's goal “is not to have a public fight with Stormwater Enterprise. Our goal is to have a good stream.” The entity does more than advocate; its work efforts include recent upgrades to Fountain Creek in Manitou Springs (at and below Soda Springs Park), using the natural principles it is urging for the Stormwater/ CDOT/Gold Hill project.
       Trout Unlimited has been reviewing the project plan's drafts and offering suggestions over the past several months. However, Hunter said, at the partners' most recent internal meeting Jan. 20 it became clear that most of those suggestions were not going to be used, and the result of that would be “no trout population.”
       “Really, this is the last resort for us, going to the media,” Hunter elaborated. “I and my board wouldn't be able to sleep at night if we didn't take this action.”
       He was happy to hear that Krieger is prioritizing the low-flow issue, but Trout Unlimited has several other issues that it also believes are high priority. One of these is Stormwater's plan to cement boulders in the creek bottom, chiefly at drop structures (where the stream dips down a few feet), rather than just put the rocks there. Also called “grouted rip-rap,” this approach “limits the ability of the stream to function normally and removes significant habitat opportunities for aquatic species including fish and macro invertebrates,” Hunter said. “While we understand the need to protect the roadway and stabilize the tailings, we feel this could be accomplished at the edges of the high flow (100-year) channel while leaving the creek to function more normally within the larger confines.”
       DOW has also been pushing for less grouting. Sampley said his agency has tried to accommodate these concerns, but is also worried that without any grouting, the rocks that are placed to armor the streambed could be washed away in high water conditions.
       Lisa Ross, a Stormwater Enterprise environmental engineer, described the current plan with grouting as follows: “Grouted boulders have been replaced with willow facines in large sections of the low flow channel and in areas where velocities allow for this approach. The combination of willow facines and grouted boulders provide stability to the creek and reduction of water quality impacts from the tailings. Improved stream health will provide a better environment for aquatic life.”
       Another objection by Trout Unlimited is to the use of about 11,000 cubic yards of concrete from the former gold mill buildings at Gold Hill Mesa, which had been bulldozed years ago and covered with dirt. Unless there are no other options (and Hunter believes there are), “we're absolutely opposed to the use of concrete,” he said.
       Gold Hill Mesa's procedure with the concrete is to saw the rebar off the concrete and reduce them to 15-inch-wide chunks, using a giant “sieve” machine.
       Those chunks would then be used to armor the sides of the creek at its widest points - however, vegetation would cover them so they would not be seen. “It's a real green sustainability thing,” said Barry Brinton, project manager for Gold Hill Mesa. “Instead of hiring a quarry to bring in new concrete, we're recycling the old.”
       The recycling also helps Gold Hill Mesa, which needed to do something with the old concrete. When it was buried underground, the land above it could not be built on because of the settling potential, Brinton noted.
       Hunter's opposition to the concrete is accentuated by the fact that some bigger chunks, unhidden, are lining parts of the creek now. Brinton said these were installed as an interim measure in 2005, at the suggestion of the Colorado Health Department (to keep tailings from washing down the hill and into the creek), and will be removed as part of the upcoming project. However, Hunter is skeptical of that pledge. The current use already exceeds a federal law limiting such temporary use to 18 months, he said. And, he argued, not all that concrete is slated for removal with the upcoming project, because some of it is in the area of a second phase (about 600 feet, connecting to the previous city upgrades near where the creek goes under Highway 24 just east of 21st).
       Asked about Phase 2, Sampley said that if bids come in low enough, it could be part of the upcoming project, but if not, the work would occur at an unspecified later date, with $600,000 currently budgeted for it.
       The partnership project has been presented by its principals as an example of positive steps toward creek restoration; it has also been touted as the first major project in the spirit of the Fountain Creek Vision Task Force. The cost breakdown is $1.12 million (Gold Hill Mesa), $1.8 million (Stormwater Enterprise) and $550,000 (CDOT).

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