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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

Browse articles and find a flipbook of the magazine here.

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Water Education Colorado

Small Town Dreams

By Lori Ozzello

‘The economic benefit of this project goes to the very survival of many of the small towns. With the threat of shutdown looming for some water providers due to non-compliance with Health Department standards, there is the possibility of these small municipalities being forced out of existence.’
—from a Nov. 28, 2006 memo to Colorado Water Conservation Board from Bruce Johnson and Mike Serlet, CWCB Water Supply and Finance Section

Arkansas Valley Conduit proponents speak with guarded optimism about the chances that all the pieces—federal legislation and adequate funding chief among them—will fall into place.

They talk about how a pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir would breathe life into shrinking towns and shore up shaky economies. How water quality will improve. How companies and manufacturers can relocate to the valley once there's an adequate, quality water supply.

‘I think we have a good chance of getting a substantial appropriation this year,’ says Bill Long. ‘Some of our work is beginning to look fruitful. It might be realized in 2008.’

Long, a Bent County commissioner, chairs the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and the Arkansas Valley Conduit Committee.

In early August, a House-Senate conference committee approved the 2007 Water Resources Development Act. The conference report passed 381-40 in the House and headed to the Senate, under the threat by President George Bush to veto the measure. The $20 billion compromise bill includes $79 million for the conduit.

Rick Palacio, deputy communications director for Rep. John Salazar, says if Bush does veto the bill, there's a good chance Congress will override it.

‘It's been seven years since the last WRDA was passed,’ explains Palacio. ‘It's got broad bi-partisan support. The public is taking a serious look at infrastructure, especially after Katrina and the bridge collapse in Minneapolis. This (WRDA) includes locks, dams and bridges, and work along the Gulf Coast. Some of these projects have been pending for years.’

Once approved, the WRDA authorizes Congress to ask for the money. If Congress OKs the appropriation, it will happen in 2008, Palacio said.

The conduit's progress this year represents a turning point in the lower Arkansas River Valley.

In 1962, Congress' approval of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project included plans for a 143-mile conduit to divert water from Pueblo Reservoir to rural towns and communities as far east as Lamar. Since then the project has been in financial limbo.

The original legislation required 100 percent local funding by the beneficiaries, but a feasibility study in 2003 concluded the 41 participating agencies were unable to pay for either the conduit or the no action alternative. GEI Consultants estimated the participants could foot, at most, 25 percent of the bill. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation wanted 35 percent.

Colorado's Congressional delegation is working toward a compromise with Reclamation.

U.S. Senator Ken Salazar says it repeatedly: The southeastern corner of the state is withering on the vine. Conduit supporters say Salazar, Sen. Wayne Allard, and Reps. John Salazar and Marilyn Musgrave ‘stepped up’ and pleaded the region's case in Washington.

In June, Allard secured $600,000 to plan the project.

Reclamation spokeswoman Kara Lamb says, ‘There hasn't been a resolution on the funding issue. It depends on the final bill. There is a lot of discussion going on.’

Despite the talks, water quality issues multiplied in the valley as standards tightened over the years. By the time the river gets to Rocky Ford, about 50 miles downstream of the reservoir, it's already picked up effluent, selenium and natural contaminants. At that point, the Arkansas River still has almost 90 miles to go before it reaches Lamar.

The cost of inaction has become one of water quality, often preventing industries and companies from locating in the lower valley. The region has seen more than its share of tough breaks, including the loss of major manufacturers and hundreds of jobs, and water sales to Front Range cities that eroded the farm economy.

‘The water conduit for Pueblo and Otero counties is critical to the public safety of the Lower Arkansas Valley.  Already, communities have received notice that they are not in compliance with EPA safety standards,’ Rep. Salazar said. 

‘The cost of cleaning the water is astronomical,’ says Jay Winner, the general manager of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, a project participant, from his office in Rocky Ford.

Neighboring La Junta and Las Animas installed reverse osmosis plants, but still have to dispose of the contaminants and reject water from the process. Early in 2007, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment shut down 16 wells in Otero, Baca and Las Animas counties. Levels of the naturally occurring uranium in the groundwater exceeded EPA standards. CDPHE is at work formulating possible solutions.

‘Our first issue is to address water quality,’ says Long from his home in Las Animas. ‘Building the conduit will provide for a brighter future. It's twofold. When we have these (local) water companies that can't meet the standards, we have to do something.’

The gravity-flow pipeline would start at Pueblo Reservoir. At Bessemer, the water would be treated before it continues. The plan means the 16 downstream cities and towns and two dozen agencies won't have to re-treat conduit water when it arrives, except to add chemicals particular to their systems.

Last November, the Colorado Water Conservation Board helped make the future a bit brighter when it approved a $60 million loan to Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District. Under the terms of the 30-year, 3.25 percent interest loan, Southeastern will collect fees from the participants, and then repay CWCB. Money changes hands only if enabling legislation passes and the pipeline is built.

‘It's ingenious, really, the package CWCB put together,’ says Winner.

CWCB's Bruce Johnson, who shepherded the loan through the application process, explains that participants will pay usage fees to Southeastern, which will pool the money. A year after the conduit is complete, Southeastern will begin to repay the principle and interest.

‘The (CWCB) board felt pretty strongly’ about the loan, Johnson says, knowing it would ‘create momentum.’
Lower Arkansas' Winner agrees. ‘For the first time, (the project) actually has some legs. It's got a lot of traction in Colorado. I also think the people are behind it because if they don't get it through this time, it's not going to happen.…I see a lot of people's hopes built on it.’

Water providers in the valley say generally their supplies are adequate to meet demands through 2050. What they need, they each say, is the pipeline.

‘The water quality on the Arkansas is changing, sometimes it changes drastically in just a few miles,’ says Joe Kelley, La Junta's director of water and wastewater treatment. La Junta now depends entirely on groundwater for its domestic supply.

‘A consistent quality of water helps us,’ Kelley says. ‘With water down the river, we lose an average of 12 percent. With a pipeline we get that 12 percent. On average, that amounts to 140-150 acre feet a year that we're losing to evaporation. That's a supply that we could use.’

Colorado's Congressional delegation is working hard on the problem, too.

In early February, Wayne Allard and Ken Salazar implored the Senate Subcommittee on Water and Power to once again consider a plan to pay for the conduit, this time with an understanding of the area's financial capabilities.

‘Legislation doesn't generally pass through Congress quickly,’ says Allard. ‘After pushing this bill in the Senate for the past four years, we're finally seeing some movement. We've got momentum building, and I am optimistic that we can build on this momentum.

‘This is the fifth year in a row I have sponsored this legislation. The people of southeastern Colorado have waited long enough.’

Advocates say the project brought all the communities together for a common good.

Forty-five years after the Fry-Ark's approval and 30 after its completion, the lower Arkansas Valley's dream of a pipeline may be in sight.

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