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In this 2019 photo, Eurasian watermilfoil is seen in the Pueblo Reservoir. (Photo provided by Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

About 50,000 southeast Colorado residents could by 2029 have safe, clean drinking water, after the federal government agreed to spend $60 million to help complete a languishing pipeline project in the Arkansas Valley region, where groundwater is contaminated with naturally occurring radionuclides.

The U.S. Department of the Interior on Monday announced the Arkansas Valley Conduit project would receive some of the $1.05 billion in federal infrastructure funding earmarked for water storage and conveyance projects nationwide. With recent federal appropriations, the conduit was expected to be completed by 2035, but the new funding accelerates that timeline. 

“We’ve been waiting a long time for the conduit and I can’t believe it’s going to be right here at our door now,” said Shirley Adams, the mayor of Manzanola, a town on the Arkansas River southeast of Pueblo. “It’s like a dream come true to watch this.” 

Once constructed, the project is expected to use a 130-mile pipeline to carry water stored in Pueblo Reservoir to serve some 40 southeast Colorado communities, where groundwater often doesn’t comply with Environmental Protection Agency drinking water standards. The pipeline is designed to deliver up to about 7,500 acre-feet of water each year, or enough to supply about 22,840 households. 

The conduit’s completion will mark the last phase of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, authorized by Congress in 1962, to address water quality concerns residents raised starting in the 1930s. The Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, the local project manager, has approval to use an additional $90 million in state loans and $10 million in grants — made available by lawmakers in 2020 — to complete 100 miles of delivery lines branching off the conduit. 

“Up until a few years ago, people were still saying it wouldn’t get built in our lifetime,” said Chris Woodka, senior program and issues manager with the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which serves parts of Pueblo, Otero and seven other counties. “We’ve had excellent bipartisan support from our senators and representatives all through the years on it. We’ve had great support from the Bureau of Reclamation on this project. It’s just the availability of federal funding wasn’t always there.”

Some shallow wells in the region have high levels of total dissolved solids, including nitrates, magnesium or iron. Deeper wells are likely to have high concentrations of uranium, radium and other naturally occurring radionuclides, Woodka said. He estimated a third to a half of residents in counties where the conduit will run have issues with radium in their water. 

The conduit will improve water quality and reliability, Woodka said, which is needed for economic growth and a resource often taken for granted. 

“It feels good to be able to do something for those counties east of Pueblo,” he said. “They’ve had difficult years economically for several decades now, and one only wonders if we’d got this built sooner if it would (have) helped.”

Construction of the Fryingpan-Arkansas project began in 1964, after then-President John F. Kennedy traveled to Pueblo to authorize its construction. The project includes Charles H. Boustead Tunnel, which moves high mountain runoff collected in Ruedi Reservoir on the Western Slope, under the Continental Divide to the Front Range. The water is deposited in Turquoise Lake, about 5 miles west of Leadville, and then moved south to Twin Lakes Reservoir. From there, it’s released into Lake Creek and the Arkansas River, where it’s delivered to water users or stored in Pueblo Reservoir. 

The Fountain Valley Conduit was completed in the 1980s and moves water to El Paso County communities. 

But the Arkansas Valley Conduit was never built because its participants couldn’t afford it. The original project plan required that the conduit be entirely funded by participants. In 2009, federal legislation changed the funding to be a 65%-35% split between the federal government and locals. And Congress has appropriated $51 million to the project since 2020, Woodka said.

Adams, the Manzanola mayor, said the conduit would have an “amazing” effect on the town and bring “soft water and drinkable water right out of our faucet.” The town’s mayor for about 20 years, Adams has been attending meetings about the conduit since the 1990s, she said. 

“We need it — that’s all there is to it,” she said. 

Amy White-Tanabe, Otero County administrator and a 4th generation resident, said the news is “huge.”

“It’s really daunting. The whole county, all of our municipalities, the water companies that I talk about — they’re not flush in cash,” she said. “Although the project is exciting it’s also scary at the same time,” in terms of getting hooked up to the conduit. 

“Our infrastructure is lacking in the municipalities and the water companies, where they have issues before the water even gets there — whether it be leaking or storage,” she said. “It’s a mixed bag of ‘Oh my gosh, this is wonderful.’ And then, ‘oh my gosh, how are we going to pay for it?’” 

County commissioners intend to direct relief funding it received toward the project as well, White-Tanabe said.

And Prowers County Commissioner Wendy Buxton-Andrade said that the project has “taken far too long already.” 

“Southern Colorado is in desperate need of clean drinking water and this will help with the delivery of it.  The Commissioners in Prowers County have been advocating for this for a long time, well before any of the current commissioners were in office and we will continue, after current commissioners are gone,” she said in an email.

The Weeminuche Construction Authority, an enterprise of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in southwest Colorado, will construct a 6-mile section of the conduit.

State and local officials applauded the announcement of the funding, which U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper and U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, whose district takes in most of the communities served, had urged federal officials to appropriate money from the infrastructure bill to the project.

Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which is contributing loans and grants to the conduit, said it was among the most critical projects the board had been part of. 

Access to clean drinking water, she said in a written statement, “is a basic human right.”

Shannon Najmabadi

Shannon Najmabadi has covered rural affairs and the rural economy for The Colorado Sun since 2021. She was previously a reporter at The Texas Tribune. Email: shannon@coloradosun.com...