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Nearly 1,000 feet of welded pipe lays next to the Arkanasa Valley Conduit ditch in eastern Pueblo County. Upon completion, the 130-mile long project will deliver filtered water to as many as 40 communities and 50,000 people in southeastern Colorado. (Mike Sweeney, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Colorado’s Congressional delegation and federal stimulus funds delivered another $100 million for the Arkansas Valley Conduit in July, bringing U.S. aid for the clean drinking water project to $251 million so far. 

There’s still a few hundred million left to fully fund the pipeline’s latest projected total cost of about $600 million. But the new nine-figure installment from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law bolsters hopes for an end to decades of waiting among lower-income communities on Colorado’s Eastern Plains seeking a drink free of radionuclides. 

Periodic Congressional appropriations and grants from the infrastructure acts have been pushed by Democratic U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenloooper, and Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert, who represents part of southeastern Colorado. 

Heavy equipment operators excavate dirt near the ditch of the Arkansas Valley Conduit in eastern Pueblo County. The 130-mile water delivery system project recently received an additional $100 million in federal funding. (Mike Sweeney, Special to the Colorado Sun)

“Nothing about this is political,” said Chris Woodka, senior policy and issues manager with the conduit’s manager, the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District. “Everything about it is just trying to get clean, reliable water supply for that part of the state. We’ve worked as hard as we can for the last 20 years to get this thing moving, and now it’s moving, so that’s a great feeling.”

Federal contracts have been awarded for the conduit’s spine, a massive pipeline connecting clean Pueblo Reservoir water supplies with dozens of communities along the Arkansas River Valley to Lamar. The district has also now awarded local contracts for some of the offshoots from the spine that will bring water to treatment facilities in places like Boone and Avondale. 

Construction will continue for years along the route through towns like Rocky Ford, La Junta and Las Animas. The last update after a federal appropriation said the conduit might be done in 2029. 

The conduit will complete the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project approved by Congress in the early 1960s. Some 50,000 residents scattered among 39 communities had raised concerns about water safety and quality since the 1930s. Other completed features of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project include a tunnel bringing fresh snow melt from Ruedi Reservoir north of Aspen, through the mountains and reservoirs, and into the Upper Arkansas for delivery to the Front Range.

Chuck Leinen, an inspector with the Bureau of Reclamation, explains how the welder that fuses sections of Arkansas Valley Conduit pipe operates. When completed, the conduit will run 130-miles long, from Pueblo Reservoir to Lamar. (Mike Sweeney, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Some Lower Arkansas residents’ water is tainted by nitrates, magnesium or iron. Other wells have tested for high concentrations of uranium, radium and other naturally occurring radionuclides. Woodka estimated to The Colorado Sun previously that a third to a half of residents who will be reached by the conduit have excessive radium in their water. 

While the district is still looking for ways to reduce the overall cost of the conduit, it is in constant search of additional money. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation page on the project says about 35% of costs must be paid by local interests. 

The conduit has a $90 million loan commitment from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and $30 million in grants. Another $4.8 million has been committed from the district’s enterprise fund, Woodka said. Counties and cities along the route have contributed another $3 million so far from their portions of federal American Rescue Plan Act shares. 

The local water districts receiving water from the conduit will be asked to help pay for a share of the project, but many residents are lower income, and the towns or water agencies can’t afford massive increases to local rates, he said. More low-interest loans from government sources may be in the works. 

“Our goal is to continue to work to reduce the cost to participants as much as possible,” Woodka said. “A lot of these counties are in economically depressed areas.”

The cost of the conduit is high, but preferable, Woodka noted, to each of 39 communities having to pay to clean up their local supply to EPA standards rather than use the clean water coming down from Pueblo Reservoir. 

The previous large federal contribution to the project was $60 million in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law water storage funds in fiscal year 2022.

Michael Booth is the Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of the Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He is co-author with Jennifer Brown of the Colorado Book Award-winning food safety investigation “Eating Dangerously.” Booth was part of teams that won two Pulitzer Prizes for breaking news. He also writes frequently about inexplicable obsessions that include tamarisk, black-footed ferrets and tire fires. Booth also serves as the underpaid driver for four children, and plans to eventually hike every inch of Colorado.