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$600 million water system underway to circumvent radioactive elements in southeastern Colorado

Colorado reservoir empty, farm wells retired amid high demand for water
Colorado reservoir empty, farm wells retired amid high demand for water 06:11

Construction is underway for an ambitious water delivery project in southeastern Colorado that is overdue by 60 years and, despite pledges totaling almost a quarter billion dollars, is not even half paid for. 

But if successfully completed, the pipeline system will bring drinkable water to 50,000 residents who live in an area where water quality suffers from naturally occurring radioactive materials. 

Heavy equipment digs the nine-foot-deep trench for the first stages of the trunk line of the Arkansas Valley Conduit east of Pueblo in July of 2023.  Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District

Currently, the water quality in the Arkansas Valley between Pueblo and Lamar is generally poor. The surface water there often contains harmful organisms and pollutants, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The possible solutions for these communities - facilities treating water via reverse-osmosis, ion exchange and filtration, or bottled water - are more expensive and problematic for the locals than the project's current $600 million price tag, in the agency's opinion. 

Digging underground wells would be a solution, but for the harmful amounts of uranium and radium. These are radionuclides, a class of chemicals where the nucleus of the atom is unstable. These are natural products from ancient marine sediments which the river cuts through.

In addition, the established irrigation systems have contributed to contamination. A 2021 study found agricultural development along the river, which uses diverted river water and shallow wells for irrigation, drains dangerous sediments back in the river. 

"This shallow return flow groundwater system eventually discharges directly to the surface flow of the Arkansas River and its tributaries," wrote the study's participants. 

These elements are concern for other downstream users as well. Kansas authorities have measured increasing levels of uranium in the Arkansas since 2012 just across the Colorado state line in Coolidge.

A graphic showing measurements of uranium found in the Arkansas River from samples taken from a stretch of the river starting near Coolidge, Kansas, beginning in 2012 and over the course of four years.  Kansas Geological Survey

Ground was broken in 2020 for the Arkansas Valley Conduit. That year, Congress appropriated $28 million toward it. This supported the $30 million the Bureau of Reclamation had received over the previous nine years. 

RELATED  Construction Begins On Pipeline To Deliver Water To 40 Colorado Communities (2020)

The funding faucet has gradually opened since, with money flowing forth in larger amounts:

  • From 2021 through 2023, Reclamation funded $31.5 million for the AVC through regular appropriations.
  • In 2022, the AVC received $60 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
  • In 2023, the AVC received $100 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

 RELATED  Colorado's U.S. Senators celebrate funding to secure clean water for part of southeastern Colorado (2022)

Last month, Colorado congressman again pleaded with the sitting president for continued funding. 

A 2016 congressional report put the total cost of the project then at $400 million. But the Colorado Water Conservancy Board's latest estimate is $600 million. That 2022 estimate takes into account the Bureau of Reclamation's projected 2035 completion date, but the conservancy board pointed out a possible expedited completion of the main pipeline, called the trunk, and hoped to finish work at the end of 2028. 

The trunk line will extend from water treatment plants immediate east of Pueblo Reservoir. It will be 30 inches in diameter at this early stage. Much of the trunk will lie adjacent to State Highway 50 for 130 miles. By the time it reaches Lamar, it will be 16 inches in diameter.

Between those two points, about 100 miles of spur line, or smaller delivery line, will bring water directly to 39 local water systems. Final designs for the spur lines are expected to be approved at the end of 2024.

Work began last spring on the trench for the trunk line. 

It is hoped the system will deliver 7,500 acre-feet of water per year. 

The project was initially approved in 1962 as the eastern portion of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project. President John F. Kennedy celebrated the legislation in Pueblo that summer. 

The dam at Ruedi Reservoir north of Aspen. The reservoir and dam were built 1964-68 as the first section of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project.  U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

For the next 18 years, the federal government and its partners built five major dams, 22 water tunnels, 16 diversion dams and three power plants.

Pueblo Dam and Reservoir, constructed 1970-75 as part of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project.  U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

The plan to construct lines beyond Pueblo Reservoir fell apart when it was determined the local agencies could not fund 100 percent of that build.

Going forward, the feds and local plan to split the costs. The current formula: federal government 65%, local and state agencies, 35%. That 35 percent will be repaid by the project's beneficiaries over 50 years. 

RELATED: Northern Colorado communities partner to build $150 million water pump station and pipeline for pending population boom

The 50,000 residents benefitting from the Arkansas Valley Conduit are comparable to the populations of the City of Littleton (45,531) and the Town of Parker (58,733) based on figures obtained in the 2022 U.S Census

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