Colorado Springs violated its federal stormwater permit in all three locations cited in a lawsuit filed by the Environmental Protection Agency, a judge ruled Friday, dealing the city a potentially costly defeat.
The lawsuit was filed in November 2016 by the EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, seeking unspecified penalties for the alleged violations. Pueblo County and the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy later joined as plaintiffs.
U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch heard the case in early September in a trial that lasted for more than a week. He issued his findings Friday afternoon.
Matsch ruled that the city violated its federal stormwater permit at Indigo Ranch North, a development at Stetson Ridge; Star Ranch, a luxury homes community on the city’s southwest side; and MorningStar at Bear Creek, a senior living center.
Matsch, who has yet to rule on other allegations against the city, did not say whether the city will face any penalties for the violations.
Mayor John Suthers was out of town and unavailable for comment Friday evening, city spokeswoman Jamie Fabos said.
City attorneys have yet to review the ruling and, with additional claims pending, the city would not be able to comment, she said.
In his ruling, Matsch wrote that city officials waived best stormwater management practices at Indigo Ranch North without sufficient justification. City officials also did not adequately oversee construction at the Star Ranch development to ensure compliance with stormwater requirements.
The city was obligated under those stormwater rules to reduce the amount of pollutants discharged from sites, which can erode stream banks, degrade water quality and harm downstream communities.
Stormwater from all three sites discharged into either Sand Creek or Fountain Creek further downstream.
Pueblo County and the Lower Arkansas District cited increased E. coli levels, erosion and flooding as a result of Colorado Springs’ failure to properly corral stormwater.
City officials approved the design and installation of a detention basin at MorningStar that did not meet drainage requirements set in 2002, Matsch wrote. They also failed to ensure “adequate long-term operation and maintenance” of that basin.
During the September trial, plaintiffs argued that Colorado Springs residents warned city inspectors that a construction site at Star Ranch was “oozing” water 24 hours a day, but an inspector responded that it wasn’t the city’s responsibility.
Another inspector said he didn’t further examine complaints that water was flowing from a construction site at Star Ranch and that “nothing at all” was in place for erosion control.
Matsch wrote that he found “a pattern of the city tolerating delays in correcting the problems reported.”
Suthers previously said the litigation was expensive and additional trials could come out of the allegations.
Hundreds of sites could be brought up in future lawsuits, City Attorney Wynetta Massey has said.
City officials had hoped to settle the lawsuit by settling before trial. City voters last November agreed to resurrect stormwater fees, which are expected to raise about $17 million a year to help pay for 71 stormwater projects meant to mitigate floodwaters and pollutants flowing downstream.
Suthers had expressed disappointment that the fees and other actions had not deterred the lawsuit.
But the ruling isn’t entirely unexpected. City Councilman Bill Murray previously said he wasn’t confident Matsch would rule in the city’s favor because the city’s attorneys essentially admitted fault during the arbitration process.
The city’s potential liability remains unclear, but Murray said penalties could be significant.
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