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The announcement late last week of an agreement among three important water resource entities associated with the Arkansas Valley Conduit (AVC) states it will deliver clean drinking water to 50,000 people in 39 communities east of Pueblo. The agreement was inked by the Bureau of Reclamation on March 18, 2022, following approval by the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District Board and the Pueblo Board of Water Works (Pueblo Water).

Negotiations on this important contract began in November, 2021 and approval marks a milestone decades in the making; assuring clean drinking water to many small, rural southeastern Colorado Communities.

“This contract signing marks one of the most significant milestones to date towards making the AVC a reality and bringing clean water to communities that desperately need it. It advances the project over 14 miles east from Pueblo Reservoir which puts us much closer to our first participants in Avondale and Boone,” said Brent Esplin, Regional Director of the Missouri-Basin and Arkansas-Rio Grande-Texas Gulf regions for the Bureau of Reclamation. “It is also the culmination of years of collaboration between Reclamation, Southeastern, and Pueblo Water to deliver a more cost-effective project to people of the lower Arkansas Valley.”

The contract will allow the Southeastern District to use capacity in Pueblo Water’s system to treat and deliver AVC water to a pipeline being constructed by Reclamation. The connection point for AVC is at the east end of Pueblo Water’s system, at 36th Lane and U.S. 50.

The agreement clarifies that the water will be either Fryingpan-Arkansas (Fry-Ark) Project water or from participants’ water portfolios; it will come from Pueblo Water’s resources. The route of the AVC follows the Arkansas River corridor from Pueblo to Lamar, with spurs to Eads and Crowley County. Reclamation is building the trunk line, while the Southeastern District will build the spur and delivery lines. The estimated total cost is about $600 million. The Southeastern and Pueblo Water boards both unanimously approved the contract on March 15 and 17, 2022, respectively.

“Chaffee County is the third-largest financial contributor to the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District Board (SCWCD) through the mill levy,” said Greg Felt, who holds the single Chaffee County seat on the board of the SCWCD. “It’s because our property valuations are so high. A lot of counties don’t have much of their county in the district, but we have a lot. We benefit tremendously from the imported water from the Fry-Ark; that’s supplemental water used by our municipalities and the Upper Ark and we’re working with the agricultural community to facilitate their ability to avail themselves of this extra water when it’s available.”

“The Southeastern and the Fry Ark project are important to Chaffee County and we’re important to the district,” said Felt. “People ask what does Chaffee County have to do with a pipeline below Pueblo Reservoir? But that conduit is part of the original vision from the Fry-Ark project that benefits us. The lower basin has benefited hugely for water for their municipal water and for their agricultural irrigation systems. This [conduit] was envisioned to help those lower counties move from relying on contaminated groundwater – this is fresh, clean drinking water.”

Many of the Lower Arkansas Valley water systems face water-quality enforcement actions for radionuclides or surface contaminants in groundwater sources. They face ever-increasing costs to cope with these problems. The AVC will eliminate or reduce the effects of those contaminants by delivering filtered water from Pueblo Reservoir.

Addressing this problem along with a shared vision for Colorado water to be used for broader state water usage was first envisioned in the 1940s, but it took until the early 1960s for the economic wheels to begin to turn. That’s when then-President John F. Kennedy visited Pueblo, and Kennedy authorized the first federal funding.

Alan Hamel, a Southeastern Board member, and former Pueblo Water executive director, said the 1962 signing of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project into law launched what has been a decades-long infrastructure effort.

That’s when the Lake Turquoise and Twin Lake Reservoirs were enlarged, Pueblo Reservoir was built, and the power plants were built. When the parameters of the Fry-Ark agreement were hammered out, the tunnel that brings the water from the Frying Pan over to the Arkansas River was built.

“There was a lot of major infrastructure built to fund the upper parts of the agreement,” added Felt. “But [the lower Ark conduit] was harder to get done. It was more complicated, the funding was harder to secure, and it’s great to see it going forward.”

Felt, who has served as the Arkansas River Basin Representative on the Colorado Conservation Board for several years, said that the state made a move in Jan 2020, frustrated that it hadn’t made progress on the conduit. It approved $90 million in loans and $10 million in grants toward the Arkansas Valley Conduit; in effect issuing a challenge to the federal government saying, “Hey, Colorado stands behind this.”

“This project is vitally important to the people of the Lower Arkansas Valley,” said Bill Long, President of the Southeastern District board. “It would not be viable, and certainly not affordable without the partnership with Pueblo Water, and I would like to express my appreciation to the board.”

“This is a truly monumental achievement and marks the culmination of decades of hard work, dedication, and collaboration by those who have devoted their lives to the business of water,” said Seth Clayton, executive director of Pueblo Water. “Pueblo Water is proud to be an integral participant in this important time in history.”

To deliver the full volume of water through the system, Pueblo Water must make some upgrades and will receive a $20 million construction recovery fee. In addition, Pueblo Water will receive a $2 million investment payment. As the needs of AVC grow, Pueblo will receive funding for necessary improvements.

This is seen as a win-win opportunity by both Pueblo Water and the Southeastern District because it reduces the cost of an earlier plan to build a new pipeline south of Pueblo. “Not only does the agreement save the AVC project hundreds of millions of dollars and years of construction time, but it also benefits Pueblo Water customers by providing an opportunity to use the excess capacity we have in our system and deliver water to our neighbors in the Lower Arkansas Valley,” said Clayton.

Pueblo Water will charge an initial rate of $2.19 per 1,000 gallons delivered, which reflects the operation and maintenance costs of those parts of the system needed by AVC. The rate will increase annually at the same rate as Pueblo Water’s other customers. Pueblo Water will also renew its contract to store excess capacity water in Pueblo Reservoir for a 50-year period under the contract.

Finally, the contract spells out environmental commitments and operating conditions related to AVC. “The significance of this action is that everybody will have the opportunity to have a clean source of drinking water after more than 20 years of work,” said Jim Broderick, executive director of the Southeastern District.

“It’s really fantastic,” said Felt about the announcement. “Southeastern Colorado could really flourish — there is a tremendous opportunity for the lower basin in terms of economic development. They have a lot of great attributes, but water quality has not been one of them. When we get this underway, it will send a signal that Southeastern Colorado has a lot to offer, and will become a lot more appealing and inviting, to business and to folks who want to locate there.”

Featured image: The AVC agreement would store water in the Pueblo Reservoir, built after President John F. Kennedy signed legislation authorizing the Fry-Ark agreement in 1962, Photo courtesy of the City of Aurora.