COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — 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 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.
Peak’s efforts are starting to be noticed. City officials are sharing his pictures. Local anglers are watching. And there is now a buzz around town about the possibilities of Fountain Creek.
“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.
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.)
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 chubs, fathead 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. That raises the question about what it would take to clean up the stream and make it more suitable for recreation.
Interest in cleaning up Fountain Creek through downtown Colorado Springs is building, but the coalitions and money needed to do it are lagging.
State Sen. Owen Hill, the Republican lawmaker Peak ventured into the creek with, said he is working to build support among non-governmental 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.”
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.”