Map of the Arkansas Valley conduit. Courtesy US Bureau of Reclamation.

It's the best good news that southeastern Colorado has gotten in a long time.

The news that Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner had secured $28 million to begin construction of the long-awaited Arkansas Valley Conduit is drawing happy reactions in the Lower Arkansas Valley.

Gardner announced Tuesday that the Bureau of Reclamation had authorized funding that would begin work on the 130-mile pipeline project that will go from Pueblo to Lamar and which will serve 50,000 residents. The project's total cost is estimated at $500 million.

"I have always wanted to say that this has gone from a pipe dream to a pipeline," Gardner told Colorado Politics on Tuesday. "Today, we're making that happen."

The conduit, which is under the federal Bureau of Reclamation, would "move water through the Pueblo water board’s Whitlock Treatment Plant for filtration, swing south of the Comanche Power Plant, then run primarily north of the Arkansas River east of Pueblo."

The conduit has been in the works for almost six decades, as the final phase of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, which Congress authorized in 1962 under the administration of President John Kennedy. The conduit's Environmental Impact Statement was approved seven years ago. 

“The communities of the Lower Arkansas Valley deserve clean drinking water, which the Arkansas Valley Conduit will supply for generations to come," Gardner said in a news release. "This is the first time robust federal funding of $28 million has been dedicated to the project which will help finish final design, pre-construction costs, and begin construction to get to the first community in need."

Gardner has worked on the conduit project since 2002, when he was an aide to then-U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard. At that time, he told Colorado Politics, he worked on legislation that would have transferred the project from the Bureau of Reclamation to the Army Corps of Engineers, and on cost-sharing for the project between the federal government and the state, putting more of the cost on the federal government. He continued working on the project when he got into the U.S. House, and the project got funding, but it was a million here and a million there. Not enough, he said, to put the shovel into the ground. 

This is the first significant tranche of funding for the project, Gardner said. "I'm thrilled for southeastern Colorado and grateful to the Trump administration for making these dollars available."

The funding also carries with it a promise for more, now that the first leg has been funded. Once it's under construction, we have an easier case to make to get the project completed, Gardner said. "We have highway dollars going to I-25 around Denver, but Colorado is more than the Front Range...for the first time, we'll see actual results in construction."

Gardner said Monday night, he called one of the people who has worked on the project for close to 20 years to share the good news. The man cried, Gardner said.

The conduit will solve one of the biggest problems in the Lower Arkansas Valley: lack of clean drinking water. According to Bill Long, president of the Southeastern Water Conservancy District, the area is under enforcement orders from the state to clean up its water quality. Residents of the Lower Arkansas get their water from wells, but the water has high levels of salt, selenium and even radioactive materials, according to Long. Selenium is the most difficult to eradicate, he said.

While the mineral is safe at low levels — it's naturally occurring in food and taken as a dietary supplement — but when it's in water supplies it's a different story. According to the National Institutes of Health, excessive selenium intake is linked to hair and nail loss or brittleness, skin lesions, nausea, diarrhea, skin rashes, mottled teeth, fatigue, irritability and nervous system abnormalities.

The LaJunta Tribune Democrat reported last year that 24 water systems in the Lower Ark are in violation of the Clean Water Act, with high levels of radium, uranium and, in a few instances, "gross alpha radiation." Radium levels in some water systems in the eastern Lower Ark are 63 times higher than levels at the Pueblo Reservoir, and the amount of uranium is up to 12 times higher, according to the report.

Sam Fosdick of Manzanola, who’s lived in the Lower Ark for 60 years, told Colorado Politics in 2018 that water quality has been a problem since the 1950s. The conduit could provide, for the first time in decades, clean drinking water to area residents who depend on well water that tinges their clothes red from the iron content, he said.

River water isn't satisfactory to deal with the water quality issue, Long explained. "The more you move east, the worse it gets." Some residents rely on reverse osmosis systems to clean the water, but that process is not energy efficient, Long said, and then there's the problem of what to do with the waste that's cleaned from the water.

The conduit will make the water easier to process and treat, as it will go through the Pueblo wastewater treatment plant, Long said. And it will relieve the area from having to treat waste as it returns water to the river. He noted that LaJunta just finished building a $20 million wastewater treatment plant, but even the new plant can't meet the discharge plan for selenium. "With the conduit water, we won't face that issue," he said.

"We're very grateful for the Senator's work," Long added. "We are very excited and pleased."

So why has it taken so long to get this project off the ground? According to the Southeastern Water Conservancy District, it's about money. "It never was built largely because of the inability of participants to repay construction costs." In 2009, Congress amended the original Fry-Ark legislation to set up a cost-sharing plan, with 65% of the funding from the federal government and 35% from the district, which would repay the federal government for its share over a 50-year period. 

Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, said he is "extremely excited" about the news. "It's been a long road," he told Colorado Politics. Last year, Crowder and Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, sponsored a resolution asking the federal government to get to work on the funding, and Crowder said that was a combined effort with residents of the Lower Ark and most of Colorado's federal delegation. "The water quality has continued to deteriorate" in the valley while waiting for this project to get underway, Crowder said.

Crowder and Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, issued a joint statement of support for the project and for Gardner's efforts. Crowder pointed out that despite being authorized by President Kennedy nearly sixty years ago, "Southern Colorado’s water needs have been put on the back burner year after year by the federal government. Thanks to Senator Gardner’s leadership, we will finally see those promises begin to be fulfilled. This is a big deal for dozens of communities in my district and I’m excited to see the Arkansas Valley Conduit finally move forward.”

Sonnenberg added that “water is of extreme importance to Colorado’s industries, especially agriculture. I’m very grateful that Senator Gardner stepped up and delivered. Water affects everything we do and the Arkansas Valley Conduit will help expand access to clean water across Southern Colorado. That’s a huge win for all of Colorado.”

U.S. Reps. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez and Ken Buck, R-Windsor, both weighed in later Tuesday. 

"I am proud to have worked with the local water conservation districts, my colleagues in the House and Senate, and the members of the Trump Administration to get this project closer to the finish line," said Tipton.

“Colorado is known for its crystal-clear streams, but for nearly 50,000 people in Southeastern Colorado, access to fresh drinking water has been a challenge,” Buck said. “That’s why I’m extremely grateful to announce that after years of fighting for clean drinking water in the Lower Arkansas Valley, we have secured $28 million in funding to start construction on the Arkansas Valley Conduit.

Sen. Michael Bennet on Tuesday afternoon said “for more than five decades, Coloradans in the southeastern corner of our state have been waiting for the federal government to fulfill its promise to deliver clean drinking water to their communities. Since I came to the Senate, we’ve worked together to pursue any and every avenue possible to ensure we fulfill that promise and build the Arkansas Valley Conduit, I’m thrilled this project is one step closer to breaking ground and ensuring that families in southeastern Colorado have access to a safe water supply," Bennet added.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board in November approved a $90 million loan and a $10 million investment in the conduit, subject to approval by the General Assembly in this year's water projects bill.

The state is also working to solve the water quality issue in the Lower Ark; last October, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment won a $1.17 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to improve water quality in the Lower Ark and the Lower Gunnison  River Basins. The Lower Ark portion of the project is to help implement best practices in agriculture and to address the selenium problem. In 2017, the EPA awarded $1.3 million to specifically address the selenium problem, which it attributed in part to "agriculture practices often increase the natural levels [of selenium] in rivers to levels that can harm human health and the environment."

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