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The receding shoreline of Blue Mesa Reservoir, near Gunnison, Colorado, shows signs of severe drought on July 16, 2021. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The nearly $1 trillion infrastructure bill set to be debated in Congress in the coming weeks would send money to a wide range of priorities, from road and bridge repairs to expanding public transportation and broadband. 

But the biggest boon for Colorado may not be money that would be spent helping move people around. It would likely come from the $8.3 billion the measure seeks for Western water projects.

“When I look at the three biggest things in this package for Colorado, water is first,” said U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, a Colorado Democrat. “I think it’s going to be a lot more than a drop in the bucket. It’s going to be a watershed moment.” 

The legislation is still being finalized, but it appears to have enough Republican support in the Senate to clear the 60-vote filibuster threshold. 

Money for the plan would come from, among other sources, repurposed COVID-19 relief and unemployment aid, the sale of broadcast spectrum, reinstating fees that chemical companies used to pay for cleaning up the nation’s worst hazardous waste sites and drawing $49 billion from reversing a Trump-era pharmaceutical rebate.

Of the $8.3 billion, $300 million would go directly to carrying out the Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan, a seven-state agreement where each sacrifices to ensure there’s sufficient water to meet the demands of the 40 million people who rely on the river.

The spending, aimed at ensuring the Bureau of Reclamation has enough resources to put the plan in action, is timely given the devastating drought in the West. Three Colorado River Basin reservoirs are being partially drained so there is enough water in Lake Powell to allow the massive reservoir in Utah and Arizona to continue producing hydropower. 

One-sixth of the $300 million — or $50 million — would go toward Upper Basin states, including Colorado. 

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The legislation would also set aside an additional $50 million for Colorado River endangered species recovery and conservation programs, like the one that helped revive the razorback sucker fish.

Here are other highlights from how the $8.3 billion would be divided:

  • $3.2 billion for aging infrastructure
  • $1.15 billion for water storage and conveyance projects, including $100 million for small storage projects
  • $1 billion for water recycling, including $450 million for large water recycling projects
  • $250 million for desalination 
  • $1 billion for rural water projects
  • $500 million for dam safety
  • $400 million for WaterSMART water conservation efforts
  • $100 million for watershed management
  • $250 million for aquatic ecosystem restoration 

The water-project funding comes after top Colorado water officials sent a letter to Hickenlooper and Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet on Tuesday asking them for “robust planning and investment” in Western water infrastructure and ecosystem resilience programs. 

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper at a “car rally” at Denver’s East High School on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The letter was signed by: Andrew Mueller, general manager of the Colorado Water Conservation District; Steve Wolff, general manager of the Southwestern Water Conservation District; James Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water; Marshall Brown, general manager of Aurora Water; Brad Wind, general manager of Northern Water; and Earl Wilkinson, chief water services officer for Colorado Springs Utilities. 

“Time is of the essence. The trending of climate to hotter, drier conditions has major

implications for water supply in the Colorado River Basin,” the letter said. “Whether the Colorado River Basin will serve as a lesson in the ravages or resilience to prolonged drought and climate change will depend in part on the collaboration, timing and extent of actions taken now and over the next decade to mitigate and adapt to changing conditions.”

The leaders specifically asked for money to bolster water conservation efforts through irrigation upgrades and to improve and protect infrastructure with initiatives like wildfire risk reduction and boosting regenerating agriculture practices. 

Hickenlooper said he thinks the congressional money is coming “coming in the nick of time.” 

“This is exactly that moment where these kinds of investments can make a dramatic difference,” he said, citing the effects of climate change. 

The infrastructure measure directs a total of $55 billion to water and wastewater, including funding to replace all of the nation’s service lines using lead pipe.

Here are some other notable parts of the infrastructure bill: 

  • $110 billion for roads and bridges, which would mark the single largest dedicated bridge investment since the construction of the interstate highway system
  • $39 billion for public transit. The money would be used to modernize bus and subway fleets and bring new service to communities. 
  • $66 billion for passenger and freight rail. The money would be used to reduce Amtrak’s maintenance backlog, improve Amtrak’s 457-mile-long Northeast Corridor as well as other routes and make safety improvements to rail grade crossings. Some of the money could go toward creating a Front Range passenger rail system in Colorado 
  • $7.5 billion for electric vehicle charging stations, which the administration says is critical to accelerating the use of electric vehicles to curb climate change
  • $5 billion for the purchase of electric school buses and hybrids, reducing reliance on school buses that run on diesel fuel
  • $17 billion for ports and $25 billion for airports to reduce congestion and address maintenance backlogs
  • $65 billion to expand broadband access, a particular problem for rural areas and tribal communities. Most of the money would be made available through grants to states
  • $21 billion to clean up Superfund and brownfield sites, reclaim abandoned mine land and cap obsolete gas wells. Colorado has scores of abandoned mines
  • $73 billion for modernizing the nation’s electric grid and expanding the use of renewable energy

The outcome of the infrastructure bill will set the stage for the next debate over President Joe Biden’s much more ambitious $3.5 trillion spending package, a partisan pursuit of far-reaching programs and services including child care, tax breaks and health care that touch almost every corner of American life. 

Republicans strongly oppose that bill, which would require only a simple majority to pass.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

The Colorado Sun —

Desk: 720-432-2229

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage.

A Colorado College graduate, Jesse worked at The Denver Post from June 2014 until July 2018, when he joined The Sun. He was also an intern at The Gazette in Colorado Springs and The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, his hometown.

Jesse has won awards for long form feature writing, public service reporting, sustained coverage and deadline news reporting.

Email: Twitter: @jesseapaul