Tim Winter, Routt County's building and plant director, describes how water is leaking into the tunnel that was built to transport inmates from the Routt County Jail to the Routt County Justice Center. County officials consider the leak a minor setback in the construction of the $13.4 million Justice Center.

Photo by Matt Stensland

Tim Winter, Routt County's building and plant director, describes how water is leaking into the tunnel that was built to transport inmates from the Routt County Jail to the Routt County Justice Center. County officials consider the leak a minor setback in the construction of the $13.4 million Justice Center.

Leak in the system

County officials dismiss tunnel's water problem at Justice Center site



Tim Winter, Routt County's building and plant director, describes how water is leaking into the tunnel that was built to transport inmates from the Routt County Jail to the Routt County Justice Center. County officials consider the leak a minor setback in the construction of the $13.4 million Justice Center.


Tim Winter, Routt County's building and plant director, steps down a ladder in an elevator shaft to access the tunnel where it connects to the Routt County Justice Center. The general contractor building the Justice Center will ultimately be responsible for fixing the leak, which Winter said is due to an installation error.


The tunnel slopes downward from each side, making the middle of the tunnel the lowest point. A pump has been placed in the middle to pump out water that is leaking into the tunnel.


Routt County Manager Tom Sullivan looks at an area outside the building that is sealed off with plastic so it can be heated while workers lay brick.


On Wednesday, workers were laying tile and installing lighting at the new ticketing and gift shop area at the Yampa Valley Regional Airport. The airport expansion could be completed by Feb. 12.


Tim Winter, Routt County's building and plant director, describes how construction is progressing on the new Routt County Justice Center. He said construction is on schedule and should be completed by September.

Timeline of Routt County Justice Center

November 2002

Routt County voters reject a mill levy to fund a $17.2 million justice center and parking garage in downtown Steamboat Springs. County commissioners spent $2.2 million on land purchases and architectural designs for the downtown site.

December 2002

Judge Richard Doucette orders county officials to construct a new justice center by Sept. 1, 2006. The Colorado Court of Appeals later overturned the order.


County commissioners host public meetings to discuss justice center locations. Two years of public debate ensue. The Steamboat Springs City Council and a community group named Friends of the Justice Center - led by current councilman Towny Anderson - support a new justice center downtown. Commissioners support a site west of town, adjacent to the Routt County Jail.

August 2004

The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers issues a preliminary decision denying the county's application for the construction of a new justice center on 1.4 acres of wetlands at the site west of downtown, saying a downtown site would cause less environmental damage.

August 2004

Commissioners prepare three further studies about the wetlands site, at an estimated cost of $15,000, for the Corps of Engineers.

May 2005

Col. Ronald Light, Corps district engineer, makes a final decision on the permit, authorizing construction at the wetlands site. Light cites room for expansion, proximity to the jail, possible flooding from the Butcherknife Creek downtown and a lower cost as reasons for approving the site. The 52,000-square-foot facility is estimated to cost $15 million, to be paid from existing and future tax revenues. The new center will not go before voters.

June 2005

U.S. District Court Judge Robert E. Blackburn dismisses a lawsuit filed by Towny Anderson, challenging the Army Corps' wetlands permit approval. Blackburn cites the lawsuit's failure to "prove the existence of a justifiable case or controversy."

January 2006

Commissioners select FCI Constructors, which has Colorado offices in Grand Junction, Durango and Longmont, as contractor for the new justice center construction. FCI submitted a bid of $13,354,700.

April 2006

Excavation and construction work begins at the site west of downtown.

- Compiled by Mike Lawrence

— Water trickles steadily into an underground tunnel being built as part of the new Routt Court Justice Center west of town.

The water collects and pools in the tunnel, which is supposed to connect the Justice Center with the Routt County Jail.

On Friday, county officials said the water seeping into the supposed waterproof tunnel is a minor setback and is being handled appropriately.

"We are experiencing some seepage issues right now," said Tim Winter, the county's building and plant director. "There is some water down there right now but the contractor's intent is to inject a hydro-type material that they're confident will seal off any leak."

Pumps are being used to remove water from the tunnel area.

Paul Barry, construction manager, said he did not know how much water has been pumped out of the tunnel because the pumps are not running constantly.

"Because it's out of sight and no one can see it, everyone thinks there's got to be something going on," he said. "It isn't like that. It's a tunnel with a leak."

Ultimately, the general contractor building the $13.4 million Justice Center will be responsible for containing the leaks and ensuring the secure tunnel is waterproof.

"By the time we open this to the public," Barry said, "no one will even know there was a water issue or that it's a tunnel completely submerged in water."

Wetlands construction

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had to approve construction and mitigation plans for the Justice Center site because it is in a wetlands area. That approval came in 2005.

Construction planners knew the water was going to be an issue.

As of September 2006, nearly 8.5 million gallons of water had been pumped from the underground tunnel site, after crews tapped into a large amount of underground water.

The tunnel was installed in July and August 2006 in pre-cast chunks of concrete. The 200-foot secure tunnel is designed for transporting inmates.

The tunnel is in the middle of the wetland and alluvial area. The tunnel is surrounded by perforated piping encased in gravel to allow the water to flow above and below the waterproof tunnel.

It will perform

County Manager Tom Sullivan said as with any construction project, issues arise once a product is installed in a real environment.

"What we have is an engineered product that needs to be applied to actual conditions," he said. "It's a minor problem with the installation and the condition of the environment. What we're using is a proven material that has been used before and performed well. Our expectation is that it will perform well."

Barry said the cost of mitigating the tunnel seepage is the responsibility of the contractor and sub-contractors, not the county.

Winter said the tunnel will not have ongoing water issues, and that pumps that have been installed in the tunnel are there only for emergency situations, not as a permanent solution.

"The bottom line is that they have to give us a waterproof tunnel," Winter said. "They have to do that whether they fix it with the sealant or they tear it up and do it again."

Anderson predicted problem

Steamboat Springs City Council member Towny Anderson led Friends of the Justice Center, a group that advocated building the Justice Center downtown. The group argued that a wetlands permit should not be issued for the west-of-town site.

Anderson has predicted for months that water in the tunnel would be a major problem.

"This is a groundwater, recharge area and an obvious source of water for the wetlands," he said. "Clearly it is a far greater volume of water, and a constant source of water, than the county had counted on."

Anderson questions the research that went into approving the site as a feasible construction site.

"To characterize this as a minimal problem is a concern," he said. "It's just as much an issue with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as it is with the county. The water flow is steady, not seasonal. It's a lot of water - it's not a minimal, moderate or low- quality wetland."

Still on schedule

Despite mitigating the water issue with the tunnel, county officials are optimistic the project will be complete by September.

County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said she is looking forward to the future.

"We feel that, conservatively, the county will be able to move into the new building in the fall," she said.

The county and district courtrooms, probation and the District Attorney's Office will move into the new center.

Remodeling the Routt County Courthouse will begin shortly after the justice center is complete, which will allow the county commissioners to have a larger meeting room and will allow all the county offices to be housed in one downtown campus, including environmental health and the coroner.

Work progresses

The Justice Center was closed in before winter came, which has allowed crews to work primarily on the inside of the building. Exterior construction will pick up once spring arrives, he said.

The garden level of the building is nearly complete, and framing, and some drywall work has been completed on the first and second floors.

The state-of-the-art building will feature a stunning glass entrance and room for expansion.

-To reach Alexis DeLaCruz, call 871-4234

or e-mail adelacruz@steamboatpilot.com


id04sp 10 years, 3 months ago

Let me see . . . what would have been an alternative to an expensive underground tunnel?

How about a covered walkway?

What else do they have down there? Uniformed henchmen and molten magma?

Welcome to your Routt Kounty Kangaroo Kourthouse and Money Pit!


Scott Wedel 10 years, 3 months ago

Advocates of building the Justice Center downtown have argued that transporting inmates between the jail and the downtown courtrooms are not a significant expense. So how can they now argue that water leaking into the tunnel between the jail and the justice center is a critical issue? They've said moving inmates above ground is easy so if the tunnel has problems then it doesn't have to be used.

That said, waterproofing the tunnel is easy. They use a system of metal plates and supports to inject the sealant into the concrete under high pressure that not only fills any cracks but goes well into the concrete itself. After that there won't be any leaks or even dampness. That is typically done at the end of the construction so any settling will have occurred prior to the treatment..


countrygirl 10 years, 3 months ago

I've always believed the tunnel to be an extravagant waste of tax payer's money.


Otto_Stader 10 years, 3 months ago

Uh, also, once that tunnel is sealed it might become buoyant. Steel-reinforced concrete has been used for boat hulls for a long time, and quite successfully.

A sealed tunnel 6 by 8 feet with concrete walls one foot thick all around would float if you immersed it in water. Sounds like that's exactly what could happen unless they solve the groundwater problem. It depends on the actual weight of the tunnel versus its displacement.

Basically, this design is never going to be right until they deal with removing the water by draining it into a sump and pumping it out continuously, or providing a proper gravity drain (surround the tunnel with gravel, place perforated pipe in the bottom, and provide for a slope down to the river). If this thing is below the level of the river, then it ought to be abandoned and converted to an appropriate use -- that is, it's a very nice WELL.


Bobbie_Dooley 10 years, 3 months ago

When an engineer speaks, people should listen and learn.


Otto_Stader 10 years, 3 months ago

And when an architect designs a building, people should have the design reviewed by a regsitered structural engineer with local experience in order to avoid problems like this. Any reasonable effort to investigate the soil conditions in the wetlands after the site was filled would have disclosed this defect in the design.

Just wait until the walls start cracking . . . .


countrygirl 10 years, 3 months ago

How we even managed without engineers and architects is just amazing. I still believe a good builder worth his salt needs neither. I know quite a few right here in town who could actually construct and entire building by themselves without the guidance of and engineer, architect, and the ever helpful county building department. Like I said AMAZING! Not that a County Building shouldn't be built without at least 2 dozen people you can point the finger at if something goes wrong. . . . now that would just be plain dumb!


Otto_Stader 10 years, 3 months ago


You are right that an experienced builder could do a good job without an engineer, arichitect, or buildiing inspector. That's because an experienced builder has been through enough inspections and design reviews to know about things like foundation loading, headers, snow loads, etc.

I sleep well at night knowing that my roof will support fourteen feet of fresh-fallen snow. I have never bothered to remove snow from my roof in the ten winters since it was completed. I have my structural engineer and the Routt County Building Department to thank for this situation, because the design is not just "good enough," but "more than good enough."

When you read about earthquakes that kill thousands of people in third-world countries, you can attribute those deaths to lack of interference by engineers and building officials during construction. Other than the partial collapse of a roof a few years ago (I think it involved some facility used by the winter sports club kids) we don't hear about this kind of thing in our area, and you can thank the Routt County Building Department for it.

Soil investigations are carried out by registered professional engineers licensed by the State of Colorado. The Building Department relies upon those results.

The county's decision to build on a wetlands area was questioned and criticized by lots of people who knew better. Dare we speculate that this was a "Titanic" mistake?


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