COLORADO SPRINGS — Past the homeless camps, plastic bottles filled with urine, funky smells and a coal-fired power plant, Alan Peak stepped into Fountain Creek and cast his fishing line into water so murky it gives transients on the nearby bank cause for concern.
After a few wiggles in and out of the fast-moving stream earlier this month, his rod bent sharply. From the sewage-hue fluid he hauled out a foot-long, brown trout the likes of which you might find in any pristine Colorado mountain waterway. The fish shimmered in the sun.
“What you need to understand is that is a beautiful, wild, clean fish,” said Peak, a thickly bearded, 36-year-old Army veteran.
Not far away, a man had just finished washing clothes in the water. Downstream a tire was anchored in the mud. Cars roared all around. On top of all that, Fountain Creek is such a stormwater mess that Colorado Springs is being sued by the federal government.
In Denver and other Front Range cities, there has been an increasingly successful push to realign the perception of urban streams as recreational gold mines rather than waste channels.
“I think more and more you’re seeing cities recognize that rivers are an incredible centerpiece for our communities,” said David Nickum, executive director of the conservation group Trout Unlimited’s Colorado chapter. “It’s not just limited to the mountain towns. There’s been a lot of effort put in by cities, Parks and Wildlife, nonprofits — federal agencies, at times — to really restore and invest in those. We’re seeing it really start to pay dividends.”
But the transformation of Fountain Creek through downtown Colorado Springs has been mostly limited to Peak’s guerrilla campaign.
The University of Colorado Colorado Springs student recently brought a state senator and his son out for a fishing expedition (they landed a big trout) and he’s been posting on social media about his capers in the creek. In some photos, he is holding hypodermic needles and other types of trash.
“Everyone is shocked,” said Jerry Cordova, a stormwater specialist with the city of Colorado Springs. “Anyone I’ve shown his pictures to is amazed at what he’s caught because no one else has seen anything like that.”
But call around to fly-fishing shops in Colorado Springs and you’re likely to get something to the effect of a quick “don’t do it” if you ask about trying to catch trout in Fountain Creek through downtown. On the “Visit Colorado Springs” website, the top fishing recommendations are miles away — and definitely do not include the area hugging Interstate 25.
“The things we see going into that water make us never want to touch it,” said Rachel Leinweber, general manager of Angler’s Covey, a fishing shop that backs up to the waterway.
She said she has seen people use the creek as a toilet on more than one occasion, and watched as people have dumped buckets filled with human waste into the water.
“Out of towners, I don’t want them to have that kind of view of Colorado Springs,” she said of why she doesn’t recommend to patrons that they try trout fishing in Fountain Creek. “But, honestly, there are fish in there. We’ve seen them in there behind our shop. Is it the best place you can go fishing within an hour? Absolutely not. I would love to see the city get their act together and clean it up.”
“I get a very mixed bag of reactions”
Peak began fishing Fountain Creek through downtown Colorado Springs about two years ago.
He ventured there after the city closed an upstream stretch of the creek that he frequented in a park near Manitou Springs. “I came down here because I wanted a place to go fishing without many people around,” said Peak, a former fly-fishing guide. “Just a place to relax and get out.”
There were no other anglers, just transients lining the banks. Peak figured he would try it out. When he caught his first fish, he couldn’t believe it. And then he started thinking about the possibilities.
“What does this mean? What could this hold?” Peak said. “There’s so many opportunities for people in the city. I love Colorado Springs and this is kind of one of those blights on it. And what could this be?”
Peak looks out of place when he walks along the concrete path that lines Fountain Creek near Colorado Springs’ downtown Martin Drake Powerplant, clad in waders and holding a rod. Some of the homeless people who camp in the area give him strange looks and appear shocked when they ask if he catches anything and he says that he has.
“I won’t go in the creek,” said Anthony LaScala, a man camped out near the creek who watched with curiosity as Peak walked past in his fishing gear recently. “I have three friends who are missing limbs because of the flesh-eating bacteria in there.”
As for the fishing community’s thoughts? It’s a mixed bag.
“Some people definitely want to come down here and see it with me, fly fishermen,” Peak said. “Some people think that I’m nuts. There’s a big question about the water quality down here. So, you know, there have been comments made: ‘Do you wear gloves? Don’t step on needles.’ It is a very mixed reaction that I get.”
Peak said he has had his share of run ins with unsavory characters — including one yelling match that got feisty — but for the most part he’s left alone.
But the population of people living along the creek and the trash that both lines its banks and bobs in its water are just part of the problem. “There’s the little issue of the things that you see in the creek,” said Cordova, the wastewater manager, “but then there’s the things that you don’t see.”
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment says Fountain Creek doesn’t meet a safety standard for E. coli — the bacteria found in fecal matter — and they are closely monitoring the section through downtown Colorado Springs for iron, lead and water temperature.
(Peak is only catching and releasing fish.)
CDPHE and the Environmental Protection Agency are suing Colorado Springs in federal court, alleging it hasn’t done enough to control pollution from stormwater.
But in reality, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife native aquatic species biologist Paul Foutz, there are lots of fish in Fountain Creek, including a large population of the flathead chub, a species that officials are trying to protect. Also in the stream are: creek chub, flathead minnows, longnose suckers, largemouth bass, shiners and rainbow trout.
The trout in the creek are not native. Foutz says they most likely ended up there by coming downstream from stretches of water that are colder and better suited for their health. Unable to return because of man-made barriers, they probably became stuck in the stretch of Fountain Creek running through downtown Colorado Springs.
CPW has found no evidence that trout are reproducing in the stream. Recent surveys by the wildlife agency, however, have shown an increase in trout over the past few years.
Bottom line, however: Just because the trout are there doesn’t mean the water quality is such that they can thrive.
“It’s not clear to us at this point in time that you could develop that into a long-term, viable fishery for brown trout or have any self-sustaining population or anything like that,” Foutz said.
That begs the question about what it would take to clean up the stream and make it more suitable for recreation.
“Why is it the only creek in the state that isn’t really fishable?” Peak said. “Go look up at any urban area — now to include Denver — but all of the other, smaller Front Range towns have urban fisheries that fish. That alone is — why? Everyone has been trained to think that this is a sewer.”
A will, but not a way — quite yet
While the interest in cleaning up Fountain Creek through downtown Colorado Springs is building, the coalitions and money needed to do it are lagging.
Trout Unlimited, the nationwide organization known for advocating for water quality improvements to bolster recreation, has not been involved. The local chapter’s president, in an interview with The Colorado Sun, cast doubt on the possibility of a sustainable trout population in the stretch, but he said he would be interested in learning more.
There are cleanups of the area around the stream, but any visitor can clearly see that they aren’t solving the problem.
“We’re absolutely talking about it,” City Council President Richard Skorman said. “But, no, there’s not, like, $10 million in a fund today that’s involved in it.”
State Sen. Owen Hill, the Republican lawmaker Peak ventured into the creek with, said he is working to build support among nongovernmental organizations to complete a cleanup. Hill declined to identify the groups because he’s still in the early stages of talks to get them aboard.
“It is a little sketchy, but we aren’t going to change that without building the awareness,” Hill said, noting that he has returned many times to fish the creek. “When you look at our grandparents’ generation, they used to picnic down there and swim in the creek. And now we’re afraid to go down there without waterproof clothing on.”
Colorado Springs’ City Council recently passed ordinances increasing fines for littering and prohibiting camping within 100 feet of a public stream to help improve water quality in Fountain Creek. The latter, which adds to the city’s existing camping ban, has drawn pushback from advocates who say transients are being unfairly blamed for a bigger problem.
Skorman says homeless displacement is a concern of his, but that the city is working toward solutions. He said he envisions that one day the confluence of Monument and Fountain creeks downtown could be like Confluence Park in central Denver, where people swim, kayak and fish.
“We’re probably a good 10 years behind other communities,” Skorman said. “I dream about this at night. It’s my big passion. And I think we’re going to do it here. I think we’re going to do something special.”
As for Peak, he’s going to continue working to raise awareness of Fountain Creek’s potential.
“This isn’t something that the current city council or government did, but it is something that they have to deal with,” Peak said. “What to do? That’s the million dollar question.”