Restoration complete on Fountain Creek north of former mill

       Workers on Fountain Creek this week were finishing a restoration project over a half-mile long east of 21st Street.

A few of the 23,000 willows that were planted in the creek restoration have begun to leaf. More were to be planted in the erosion- protection coir rolls (right) that will disintegrate over time. In the background are some of the old cottonwood trees that were saved.
Westside Pioneer photo

       Other than a few dozen cottonwood trees between the creek and Highway 24, the section looks almost nothing like it did before work started last summer. Where there had been a meandering stream with eroded banks - coming close to undercutting Highway 24 in places - there is now a waterway that looks and behaves the way a creek naturally would, yet at the same time flows through a carefully shaped channel and flood plain that's been vegetated with a multitude of trees, plants and grasses.
       In addition, as part of the project steps have been taken to keep tailing residue from washing into the creek from the former gold mill operation south of the creek, according to project leaders.
       “As project manager, I've been excited to see the progress and results,” said Lisa Ross of the Colorado Springs Stormwater Enterprise, which had partnered in the project with the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and the Gold Hill Mesa development (on the property where the gold mill had been). “Overall, there's been a lot of positive feedback from the community.”
       Some of the most visible work of late has been the yellow straw covering a matting holding grass seed in place along the lower south bank of the creek. Also colorful has been the spraying in the last couple of weeks of dark green “hydroseed” (containing a mix of grass seed and mulch, held together with a biodegrable tackifier) along the upper slopes.
       The project's end cost will be close to $3.2 million, according to Ross' nearly finalized figures ($1.61 from Stormwater, $1.02 million from Gold Hill and $550,000 from CDOT). The previously stated total had been $2.3 million, but that reflected just the original bid from the contractor, CSI. Add-on work to upgrade the flood plain to a 50-year capability raised the CSI contract to $2.5 million; there were also costs for construction management and geotechnical work, Ross explained. The pre-bid estimate had been $3.6 million.
       There is still a chance of occasional follow-up work in the coming months, based on various project warranties, including those for the new plantings. “After this week, we'll be monitoring that,” said Mark Wilson of THK, a CDOT landscape consultant on the project. “We don't want to wait another season for the vegetation to come together. We want it to happen now, so we can replant where we need to and take advantage of the spring rains that will be coming through.”
       Under the contract, CSI is required to water the extensive plantings for the next four months. Efforts have also been made to plan the vegetation with success in mind. For example, Wilson said, pains were taken to use a “riparian” grass nearer the creek that does better in a wetland situation and an “upland” strain farther away that can thrive with less water.

Colorful grass plantings brighten the south slope of the creek this week - bright yellow straw over a grass mat and a sprayed-on dark green mix including grass seed.
Westside Pioneer photo

       Plants that are already starting to become visible are the 23,000 willows, which will help with stability near the creek's low-flow channel. (The “low-flow” is the narrow channel in which the creek stays except in larger storms.) There are also 10,000 “submerged aquatic plants” (basically rushes, sedges and grasses that will grow to 2 to 3 feet tall), which will help filter water coming in from storm drains, according to project plans.
       Although a few dozen of the cottonwoods on the north side of the creek were retained, nearly all of those on the south side (as well as a number of invasive elms) had to be removed because of the extensive ground reshaping. “There was a vertical bank, and we had to slope it back,” summarized Aaron Smith, engineer for project consultant CH2M HILL.
       Thirty new cottonwoods (about 8 to 10 feet tall now) have been planted. Like their predecessors, they will get up to 40 to 50 feet tall, but this variety of cottonwood has the added feature of not launching seeds into the wind every year, Wilson pointed out.
       Bob Willard, the lead developer of Gold Hill Mesa who helped organize the three-entity partnership based on common interests, said in a recent interview that he was pleased with how the project was going. By removing the possibility of tailings going into the creek, “it clearly helps the Westside,” he said. And with the plantings and creek bank improvements, “I can honestly say there won't be any flooding on our property.”
       In reshaping the banks, because of the potential for tailings in the dirt that was dug up, it was trucked up to the southwest corner of the Gold Hill property, where Colorado Health Department regulations allow it to be mixed with clay as a base material up to 15 feet below ground level. The mix will be stronger than clay by itself and make that corner a “nice, stable area” to support future construction, Willard said.
       For the creek, a future expectation is that the restored segment will become popular for fishing. The Division of Wildlife requirements included channel design touches that would encourage fish habitat. Conditions aren't ideal just yet, but already fish are being spotted. Remarking on the creekside plantings this week, Ray Fournier, head of CSI, said they could withstand being walked on to a point, but could be harmed by “a lot of foot traffic.” In any case, he predicted that it won't be long before the expanse of straw has at least “a couple of trails from fishermen.”

A pooling problem below the previously built drop structure at the east end of the current project.
Westside Pioneer photo

       CSI worked its way downstream on the project, diverting the water for long periods into temporary routes while using heavy equipment to set large boulders in defining a new permanent channel.
       The project connects at either end with creek work done seven years ago as part of the Springs Community Improvements Program (SCIP). However, there has never been complete satisfaction with how the lower SCIP work turned out - a prominent example is less than 50 feet east of the current project, where a SCIP drop structure loses so much elevation that part of the water strays away from the channel into a stagnant pool.
       At one point, earlier in the current project, there had appeared to be enough of a monetary cushion to continue the work east at least another 100 feet, which would have fixed the above problem. “Ideally,” Ross said, “we'd like to take it down to Eighth Street and reconstruct it to look like upstream.” But with the Stormwater Enterprise program on its way to elimination - it's running on leftover 2009 funds with a reduced budget this year - the money wasn't there.
       However, Ross added, there is a possibility of at least some of that work occurring through the Colorado Health Department's Supplemental Environmental Project (SEP) program, in which funds become available from settlements with companies that have violated environmental regulations. She said she hopes for an answer on the city's SEP application by next fall.

Westside Pioneer article