In the Pikes Peak region, the natural environment plays a vital role in our community’s way of life and it should be protected and preserved. For many, the natural environment is a source of identity and one of the main reasons to live here. Explore this page to learn more about the natural environment in the Pikes Peak region.
The Pikes Peak region’s natural environment is a treasured, vital, and vulnerable asset that is key to the community’s way of life. It plays an integral role in the community’s health, economy, and vitality, and we work hard as a community to ensure that it is protected and preserved.
For generations, people have been drawn to the natural beauty and landscapes of the Pikes Peak region. As more people come to enjoy the area, however, more pressure is placed on the natural environment, which is a source of scenic beauty, wildlife habitat, food and water, and economic productivity.
Palmer Land Conservancy CEO, Rebecca Jewett, has said, “Protecting, conserving, and stewarding land, nature, and water is ultimately a catalyst for our community’s well-being, resiliency, and prosperity.”1
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Land conservation provides critical habitat for native plants and wildlife, protects watersheds, advances recreation and tourism, and supports food production. To prioritize land conservation, the State of Colorado uses a portion of lottery revenues to acquire land via Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO).2 It also provides a tax credit to encourage private landowners to set aside lands as conservation easements—a legal designation that preserves land use, restricts future development, and ensures a public benefit.3
Through those two vehicles, the state invested more than $1 billion in land conservation from 1995 to 2017, with each dollar spent producing at least $4 in public benefits—or $2,700 per acre.4
As of 2018 in El Paso and Teller Counties, 159 land parcels had been set aside as conservation easements, comprising 34,850 acres. That represents 2.0% of the total metro land area.5
6 Colorado Ownership, Management and Protection (COMaP)
In terms of total acreage and percent of land area conserved, Colorado Springs trails Boulder and Fort Collins. However, Colorado Springs has substantially closed the gap, with a third of its easement acreage having been added since the beginning of 2010 (vs. less than 10% for Boulder and less than 15% for Fort Collins).
Across six peer communities, Colorado Springs ranks 3rd in acreage conserved as a percentage of total land area and 2nd in growth in acreage conserved since the beginning of 2010.7
Watershed Health and Water Body Impairment
A watershed is a region of land that drains to a single point in a body of water such as a stream, river, or lake. Smaller watersheds, like creeks are part of bigger watersheds, like rivers. All watersheds eventually drain to the oceans. Everyone lives in a watershed.
Healthy watersheds support wildlife, recreation, agriculture and supplies of drinking water. They are marked by clean water (free from pollutants and harmful bacteria), a thriving habitat, and movement of water (hydrology) and land (geomorphology) that varies within an expected natural range.8
The Pikes Peak region spans a boundary between two regional watersheds—the South Platte River and the Arkansas River. Within those regional watersheds are 92 defined smaller watersheds. Several of those make up the Fountain Creek watershed (shown in map), which drains 927 square miles of land and water from the top of Pikes Peak to Pueblo, including nearly all of the city of Colorado Springs. Varying widely in elevation, precipitation, soil type, temperature, gradient, ecosystem, and water use, Fountain Creek is a challenging environment to manage.9
The Healthy Watersheds Assessments Project of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) monitors watershed conditions for impacts from erosion, floods, wildfires, litter, and chemical and biological pollutants.10 Several measures are combined into overall indexes of watershed health and vulnerability, relative to state and ecological region.11
The EPA’s watershed health index ranges from 0.00 (unhealthiest) to 1.00 (healthiest). In 2021, Colorado Springs’ 92 watersheds had an average health index of 0.72 (relative to state standards). That compared favorably to Boulder, whose 33 watersheds averaged 0.64.12
However, some watersheds in Colorado Springs did score high for vulnerability. In 2021, five local watersheds had statewide vulnerability index scores greater than 0.50, while none of Boulder County’s watersheds did. The most vulnerable watersheds include:
13 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Additionally, states are required by the Clean Water Act to report whether individual bodies of water have experienced significant impairments in water quality.14 Sixty of the 72 defined water bodies in El Paso and Teller Counties (which includes segments of creeks and rivers, along with their tributaries, as well as groups of ponds in close proximity) have been assessed in the 2022 reporting cycle. Of those, 63% (38) were rated as good (unimpaired), while 37% (22) were rated as impaired. The most common impairment was bacteria and microbes (noted in 13 bodies of water), followed by metals (10). That rate also compares favorably to Boulder, where 77% of 57 assessed water bodies were rated as impaired.15
Organizations, businesses, and neighborhood groups can volunteer to improve watershed health through the City of Colorado Springs’ Adopt-A-Waterway program. In 2019, more than 3,300 volunteers removed 32.9 tons of litter from area waterways.16
The EPA is authorized through the Clean Air Act to establish and monitor air-quality standards to protect public health and to regulate emissions of hazardous air pollutants.17
Among the six pollutants it monitors, ozone is of greatest concern in the Pikes Peak region. Ozone has harmful effects on the respiratory system, particularly for children and people with asthma and lung diseases. It forms when sunlight causes a chemical reaction between nitrogen oxides—emitted from combustion engines and furnaces—and organic compounds, such as those in gasoline vapor, dry cleaning chemicals, and refinery emissions. The EPA standard for maximum ozone levels in the air is 70 parts per billion.
Air quality in the region is monitored year-round at monitoring stations in Manitou Springs and at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where ozone concentrations are usually the highest. Air Quality Index (AQI) levels over 100 are considered “unhealthy for sensitive groups”; levels over 150 are “unhealthy” for all populations.18 The following charts show the number in which the AQI exceeded 100.19
For Colorado Springs, the most significant number of unhealthy days in the past decade occurred during the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire, which burned for 18 days in the northwest portion of Colorado Springs.21
For the five-year period ending in 2020, Colorado Springs averaged four unhealthy days per year, which ranked 2nd of 6 peer communities for fewest unhealthy days.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Greenhouse gases absorb heat in the atmosphere and release it gradually over time, like bricks in a fireplace cooling slowly after the fire dies. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most abundant of these gases. It is naturally present in the atmosphere; its greenhouse effect prevents earth’s average annual temperature from being below freezing. Forests and soils remove and store CO2 from the atmosphere, but industrial activity and combustion from fossil fuels have created an overabundance of CO2. Due to CO2 staying in the atmosphere longer than many other gases, it both creates unnatural warmth and raises the acidity of ocean water.23
Colorado has the 11th-highest rate of CO2 production among U.S. states.24 Emissions from large facilities in the metro area have trended downward in recent years as governments and industry have sought to reduce emissions.25
26 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Census Bureau
Colorado Springs has reduced its CO2 emissions by a third between 2015 and 2020. However, among peer communities, Colorado Springs only ranks 5th of 6th for fewest average emissions per capita from large facilities.
27 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Census Bureau
The state of Colorado is pursuing ambitious policies to address greenhouse gas emissions across the state.28 Among those policies is linking funding for transportation projects to decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.29
Colorado Springs Utilities, which provides electricity and gas to much of the area, agreed in 2020 to cut 80% of its emissions by 2030.30
Waste and Recycling
Municipal solid waste (MSW) refers to garbage or trash from households and businesses, much of which is disposed of in landfills. The MSW diversion rate reflects how much of the generated waste is diverted from disposal in a landfill (or incineration) by recycling and composting. Diversion rates are commonly measured as a percentage of all waste generated or on the basis of pounds-per-person.
The state of Colorado reports on recycling for the state as a whole and also for the 11-county front-range urban/suburban corridor. Availability of county- and city-level data is dependent on locally authorized monitoring.31
In 2020, the front range as a whole diverted 16.2% of its MSW. That corresponds to 1.1 pounds of recycled waste per person, per day (out of 6.9 pounds of waste generated).32
The front range’s rate and Colorado’s statewide rate (17.2% in 2018, 15.3% in 2020) are far below the national average (32.1% in 2018).34
Only one cited study of recycling in El Paso and Teller counties was identified; conducted in 2010, it indicated an MSW diversion rate of 11 percent.35 That rate compares unfavorably to those calculated in recent years for Larimer County (32.0% in 2016)36 and Boulder County (44.6% in 2018).37
The City of Colorado Springs’ Comprehensive Master Plan, PlanCOS, lists “Majestic Landscapes” among its six priority areas.39 The plan includes numerous strategies for protecting and improving the natural environment, including:
- Acquire or protect additional properties to preserve as part of Natural Resources and Regional Recreation Typology 3 and Greenways Typology 5. (Strategy ML-4.A-1)
- Align annexation, master plans, and large-scale planned unit developments to contribute and connect to natural areas. (Strategy ML-4.A-4)
- Consider establishment of wildlife-sensitive composting and recycling programs on City-owned and partner-entity properties. (Strategy ML-4.B-2)
- Encourage increased use of xeric and native plants throughout most landscaped park and median areas. Reduce the water demand footprint and maintenance costs in parks by identifying high water use turf areas not suitable for recreation and replacing a percentage of these areas with lower-water requiring native grass species. (Strategy ML-4.B-4)
- Update the Commercial Landscape Code and Policy Manual to improve its effectiveness at ensuring healthy, resilient, water-conserving landscapes. Provide adequate funding to ensure on-site inspections of each project. (Strategy ML-4.B-7)
- Coordinate with Colorado Springs Utilities on the decommissioning of the Drake Power Plant and replacement power. (Strategy ML-4.C-1)
- Support and implement cost effective upgrades to Colorado Springs’ vehicle and equipment fleets to incorporate zero and low emissions technology. (Strategy ML-4.C-4)
- Partner with Colorado Springs Utilities and school districts to support educational efforts and provide incentives to support water and energy conservation, and environmental quality best practices. (Strategy ML-4.D-3)
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