PUEBLO, Colo (CBS4) -- With cameras clicking, officials pitched shovel-fulls of dirt Saturday in a typical groundbreaking. But it's water they are moving in the long run.
The ceremony at the Pueblo Reservoir Dam kicked off the last stages of a project started nearly 60 years ago - one that will deliver water hundreds of miles to thousands of southeastern Colorado residents.
President John F. Kennedy signed the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project Act in 1962, authorizing the construction of the second largest water project in Colorado, (behind only the Colorado-Big Thompson). The diversion of Western Slope water originating in the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork rivers near Aspen into Pueblo Reservoir was completed by 1982.
But the last stretch reaching the smaller communities of Lamar and Eads, called the Arkansas Valley Conduit, was put on hold due to a lack of financing.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, a part of the U.S. Department of Interior, announced Saturday it is investing $28 million toward the completion of the 230-mile pipeline project.
The total cost of the AVC is estimated to be between $564 million and $610 million, and 35 percent of the costs will be repaid by project beneficiaries over a period of up to 50 years.
The bureau projects a future population of 50,000 people will be served.
It will take more than 15 years to complete, according to CBS affiliate KKTV.
"The communities of the Lower Arkansas Valley deserve clean drinking water, which the Arkansas Valley Conduit will supply for generations to come," said U.S. Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO). "It's an honor to help finally begin construction on this project for the first time since Congress authorized it and President Kennedy promised completion nearly six decades ago. I will keep fighting to ensure the federal government upholds its funding commitment until the project is completed."
"We have an important decision to make in this country, and that's if we're going to have a rural America or not," U.S. Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) added. "And you can't have a rural America without having rural hospitals, you can't have a rural America without schools, you can't have rural America if you don't have clean water or agriculture and that's what this project is all about."
Communities along the Arkansas River east of Pueblo suffer poor water quality due to naturally occurring radioactive contaminants such as radium and uranium, but also from surface water that contains harmful microorganisms and pollutants, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.
AVC will deliver as much as 7,500 acre-feet of water from Pueblo Reservoir annually. Water will flow by gravity, with the exception of one pumping station in Eads.
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