Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) met with members of the Southeast Colorado Water Conservancy District Thursday to discuss the Arkansas Valley Conduit and plans for the pipeline going forward. The meeting was hosted in a wide conference room at Southeast Colorado Power Association. The pipeline project is in good shape financially and the conservancy board expects construction to make strong progress in the next few years.
Some members of the conservancy board of directors and president of the board Bill Long were in attendance at the meeting with the senator. Another person in attendance was La Junta City Engineer, Tom Seaba. Seaba was there to provide Bennet with an overlook of the City of La Junta's water needs and the needs of the systems that rely on it.
Seaba provided a quote that has stuck with him over the years to preface his discussion.
"Back in the late 1960s there was an author who came through this area writing a book about the southwest," said Seaba. "She came to La Junta because it's always been kind of said the southwest begins here. The Arkansas River was the border between the United States and Mexico. There was Bent's trading post here. And she wrote in her book, 'You know you're in La Junta, Colo., when there are more cows with less milk, more streams with less water, and you can look farther and see less than any other place in the world.'
"It's not necessarily our tourism tagline," Seaba said, "but unfortunately, it rings a few strings of truth in what she said. And I'm sure you've seen it as you've toured around our area."
Otero County has 24 water systems within its boarders, Seaba said. Of those 24, 15 have radionucleides — radioactive isotopes. Of those 15 water systems, four have joined La Junta's water system.
"Three of them, we provide 100% pure drinking water and for the fourth, Swink, we provide 50%," said Seaba. "It went in to bring themselves to compliance."
The radionucleides present in many of Southeast Colorado’s water systems are naturally occurring. Uranium and selenium leak into groundwater through shale embedded deep beneath the surface, Seaba explained. Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment have tightened regulations on the amount of selenium that can be present, and those regulations have made it challenging for some local water systems to remain or become compliant.
Seaba said La Junta's water system does a "fantastic job," but the problem the city faces now is that they have excess waste to manage. Seaba mentioned that La Junta finalized construction of a new wastewater treatment plant and now it is working with the health department on a solution to the presence of selenium.
"What the conduit best does for La Junta is, it not only helps us maintain a high quality of water for these other systems that came to us for assistance to cure their issues, but helps us find a way to be in compliance for this selenium," said Seaba. "No matter where you draw water from around here, for us, it's going to be there. Since we ought to have mechanical treatment for our waste water, that helps us manage our water augmentation ..."
Ken Waggner of Las Animas said they rely on reverse osmosis similarly to La Junta, and the issues they face are much the same. Reverse osmosis is cost prohibitive for the city, which is another reason the conduit would be beneficial to the area.
"It’s very cost prohibitive for a small city, even smaller than La Junta," Waggner said.
During the meeting, Bennet asked local stakeholders if there were other avenues of approach that local water systems could benefit from.
Everyone in attendance echoed similar thoughts: The proposed Arkansas Valley Conduit is the best, most affordable, most efficient option to provide clean drinking water to the lower Arkansas Valley. And now, the district is in a position to get things started.
Senator Cory Gardner announced Feb. 4 that he had secured $28 million in funding for the Arkansas Valley Conduit. Bennet celebrated the news and released a statement that day:
"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," said Bennet. "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."
That $28 million slice of funding, along with other funding sources secured by the conservancy board, is able to fund the start of construction.
"This current fiscal year we received 28 million as part of the (plus up), and that will allow for final design and construction of the AVC pipeline, and begin designing construction of the dechloramination facility, which is very near," said Long. "So we actually have the funds to get this project under construction, which is a huge milestone.
"We actually have the dollars to start construction," Long continued. "There is 8 million in the budget which we will use for to finish the dechloramination facility. I think you're aware, but we have $100,000,000 from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Some of the folks here testified at a hearing they held for that."
$90 million of the funds are in the form of a loan and $10 million are direct funds, Long said. He emphasized that the conservancy board will not access those funds for at least a year and a half because it still needs to finalize its plan for paying back the loans.
During the week of Aug. 16, Long said, two conservancy committees unanimously passed a motion to recommend to the board that it allocates an additional $4.6 million in funds to the conduit to get the finalizing and construction process moving on its end.
The conservancy district has reclamation costs it must consider as well, Long said, and that expense will cost another $28 million. That funding will allow construction of a trunk line to reach as far as Rocky Ford.
"In 2022, another $28 million, and then thereafter, until the project is complete, approximately $30 million a year," said Long.
Long stressed that the need to meet health requirements and regulations causes a heavy financial burden of owners of local water systems and their customers, and that the conduit is the best solution.
"This is a path we've chosen before, there either are no other options that meet the regulations or are financially feasible. This (the conduit) is the best option. We have had conversations with Sally Clark, USDA state director, and those have been very good conversations."
Bennet mostly listened to local stakeholders during the meeting. He spoke up every so often to ask a clarifying question or to get more background on a particular topic. He’ll take the feedback he learned back to Washington, D.C.
The senator has played a significant role in the effort to fund and construct the Arkansas Valley Conduit. He’s been heavily involved in the project for over a decade.
"As long as you're opening the ground between Pueblo and Lamar, is there anything else you could drop in there that would be of help to the people, and what I mean by that is like a broadband trunk?" said Bennet.
"That is correct," Long answered. "We do have a lot of broadband in the railroad. Are we ready for there? That's a good question."
The Arkansas Valley Conduit is a 130-mile pipeline project that would deliver clean drinking water to about 50,000 residents of Southeast Colorado. It was conceived as a portion of the Frying Pan-Arkansas project that was passed by Congress in 1962. Funding for the project has been largely absent until recent years.
Tribune-Democrat reporter Christian Burney can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Help support local journalism by subscribing to the La Junta Tribune-Democrat at lajuntatribunedemocrat.com/subscribenow.