About 10 miles east of Pueblo, just off U.S. 50, Chris Woodka steers his SUV past a nine-foot-deep channel that’s been dug out of the hard-baked dirt. Bulldozers and a dump truck beep and growl as they push and haul earth around the site, while a modest collection of workers wearing hard hats mills about the massive excavation site. Black pipes welded together into mile-long sections lie in the trench like a monstrous snake.

Passing motorists could be excused for assuming this is just another road project frustrating their commutes. In reality, the construction is the first stretch of one of Colorado’s most significant infrastructure projects in two decades: the Arkansas Valley Conduit (AVC), a 130-mile-long, estimated $600 million pipeline that will bring treated water from Pueblo Reservoir to 39 rural water systems in the southeastern part of the state. Although it’s being billed by its makers as “the straightest pipeline in the United States,” the AVC didn’t take a direct path to this moment. “This project was always going to be complicated and costly to build,” says Woodka, senior policy and issues manager for the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District (SCWCD).

First authorized in 1962 during President John F. Kennedy’s administration, construction of the AVC was delayed by funding obstacles, leaving 50,000 residents in the lower Arkansas River Valley—which stretches from Pueblo to Prowers counties—to contend with tap water plagued by radionuclides and other contaminants for six more decades. The project finally broke ground a year ago this month, and the first pieces of this initial six-mile section went into the ground in August. Delivery lines will carry filtered water from the main pipeline to Avondale and neighboring Boone, the first locales that will receive AVC water, in a year or two, but the conduit’s main line won’t reach its final destination of Lamar until about 2031.

Woodka continues driving beyond the construction site, passing miles of pipe waiting to be buried along Avondale Boulevard. The former Pueblo Chieftain journalist looks out the window of the SUV as trucks bore a new trench under the Arkansas River. “All of my career at the paper and most of my career at the district, I had to listen to people say this project could never get built,” Woodka says. “And now we’re building it.”

During the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, farmers in the lower Arkansas River Valley watched their fields dry up and destructive brown clouds rip through their crops. They needed a new, dependable source of irrigation.

Much of Colorado’s agricultural landscape lies in the east, but around 80 percent of the state’s water falls over the mountains and flows down into the Western Slope through rivers and streams. In the late 1940s and early ’50s, communities on the Eastern Plains banded together and proposed tapping the Fryingpan River near Aspen, even selling commemorative frying pans to pay for lobbying trips to Washington, D.C. The politicking eventually worked: On June 15, 1962, the headline in the Pueblo Star-Journal read, “Brought Home Bacon In Fryingpan.”

That August, Kennedy flew to Pueblo to celebrate the passage of an act authorizing the project. Standing outside at a school stadium decorated with red, white, and blue bunting and at least two dozen hanging frying pans, he remarked: “There is no doubt but that this will be a sound investment in the future of both Colorado and the nation, an investment which will yield rich dividends in the years to come.” Afterward, U.S. Senator John Carroll of Colorado presented the president with a frying pan to take home.

The Fryingpan-Arkansas Project marked a monumental expansion of Colorado’s water infrastructure. Most of the pieces proposed in the plan got built between 1965 and the mid-1980s and included the Ruedi Dam and Reservoir, the Mount Elbert Powerplant (which powers around 20,000 households annually), the Pueblo Dam and Reservoir, and the Charles H. Boustead Tunnel, which transports water from the Western Slope to southeastern Colorado. Today, the diversions provide supplemental water to more than 900,000 residents and 217,000 irrigated acres of land stretching from Colorado Springs to Pueblo. But although the AVC was part of the Fryingpan-Arkansas’ original blueprint, the pipeline never became a reality.

“Most federal construction projects are required to be repaid over time by the beneficiaries of the project,” says Jeff Rieker, eastern Colorado area office manager for the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that owns and operates the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project and is building the AVC’s main line. The Colorado Springs section of the Fryingpan-Arkansas, for example, was completed in the 1980s; area taxpayers paid it off in 2022. But by 1978, the price tag for the AVC was estimated at $50 million, and it was clear area residents wouldn’t be able to pay that bill: Crowley, Otero, Bent, and Prowers are four of the most economically disadvantaged counties in the state. Those counties also have some of the greatest need for clean water.

In fact, 18 of the 39 water systems that will be served by the conduit contain unsafe levels of radionuclides such as radium and uranium, which are naturally present in the Earth’s crust and reach water through deep wells. “In Colorado, we happen to have certain geologic formations that have more of this material in it than other places,” says Ron Falco, the safe drinking water program manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE). “And in the Arkansas Valley, they’ve got more of these types of rock formations and more of this in the soil as compared to other locations in Colorado.” In an evaluation of 50,000 water systems in the United States, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group found that six of the 10 worst radium levels are in southeastern Colorado.

The CDPHE has never determined that the valley’s water has caused people to become sick, largely because regulators can’t conclude culpability over such a large region, where factors such as age, genetics, and how much water someone consumes skew results. Additionally, towns rich in radionuclides—which, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, can lead to serious health issues such as cancer, anemia, and necrosis of the jaw—are required to pay to remove radium from their supplies and safely dispose of it, if they don’t secure clean water from elsewhere.

Still, there are other concerns. Melissa Bohl, who’s owned a flower and gift shop on Lamar’s main drag for 20 years, says it’s common to see people with stained teeth caused by the high concentrations of naturally occurring fluoride in the water. “It’s all of the outlying communities and the very small water infrastructures that have the majority of the problems,” she says. When Bohl lived in Wiley, about 10 miles northwest of Lamar, there were times when the water flowing to her washing machine ran rust-colored and she couldn’t clean her clothes.

Wiley bought new wells in the early 2000s, and Lamar built a new water treatment facility in 2010. But Bohl still drinks bottled water.

Woodka has spent about 40 years studying the AVC, and the evidence of his research is piled high on his desk in Pueblo: Seven three-inch white binders hold information on the communities the conduit will serve. A book beneath his two computer monitors is titled Drinking Water: A History. He points to a whiteboard. Covered in numbers in various colors, Woodka’s “dashboard,” as his boss calls it, is a record of past, current, and future conduit funding sources. “[Valley residents] know it’s coming. Are they excited about it? Mostly the question we get is, ‘How much is this going to cost us?’ ” Woodka says.

Not as much as they might think. Legislation passed by Congress in 2009 changed the math so that instead of local communities repaying all construction costs, the split is now 65 percent federal, 35 percent local. “It paved the way for a much more feasible and viable project,” Rieker says.

Since 2009, AVC designs have been updated and environmental impact statements completed, opening the valve for money to finally flow. During the past four years, the Bureau of Reclamation and Congress have supplemented the approximately $30 million previously allocated toward the conduit with $220 million more. Grants and loans from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, a statewide agency created in 1937 to protect and manage the state’s water, added $120 million. That covers more than half of the project’s estimated $600 million price tag. Revenue from the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project generated by storing other entities’ water in Pueblo Reservoir—from $3 million to $4 million a year—will also provide funding. Woodka estimates that the $10 million to $20 million that will need to be repaid by taxpayers over a 20- to 30-year period will add less than a dollar to monthly water bills. Some communities, however, feel they have already paid enough.

With more than 7,000 residents, La Junta is one of the most populous towns in the valley. Unlike most of Otero County, La Junta draws its water from shallow wells that don’t contain radionuclides, but it does hold high concentrations of calcium, iron, and manganese, which can have a metallic taste and sometimes stain appliances or clothing red. The result is a supply that’s more viscous than drinking water should be. “You’d basically have to chew it,” says Tom Seaba, the city’s director of water and wastewater, of the stuff he grew up on.

In 2004, La Junta spent $12 million to build, among other improvements, a reverse osmosis water treatment plant and added a now $17 maintenance fee to their customers’ monthly bills to cover the cost as well as future projects. Although the town engineered the plant to connect to the conduit when (and if) the AVC was ever completed, more than half of the facility will no longer be in use if it plugs into the new pipeline because the water is already treated. That would save the town money on staff and electricity while also improving conservation: During treatment, about 30 percent of La Junta’s water is converted to nonpotable wastewater. If the city only used conduit water, treatment waste would be zero. But residents would still have to pay that monthly fee even if less than half of the plant remains open.

La Junta will also have to cover any additional costs necessary to connect to the AVC—as will many others. The conduit will carry treated water from Pueblo, but some communities along the route will need to make improvements to be able to link up, such as building additional water storage capacity, altering chemical mixes to balance pH levels, or, as in the case of Rocky Ford, updating aging infrastructure to minimize leaks and main breaks. These efforts can cost well into six figures and could reach into the millions.

The CDPHE’s Falco believes the investment will pay off long-term. “We have this unique circumstance where this one project is going to solve this problem and sustainably solve it for quite a number of these communities,” Falco says. “It’s a big effort for the communities down there, it’s a big effort for us, it’s a big effort for the federal government. But it’s so worth it. It’s going to bring much higher water quality to communities down there—a sustainable source of water.”

Despite the reality of that miles-long pipe finally reaching its way toward them, for many valley residents, the water issue has endured for so long that it’s simply become a part of life. Six years ago, Meghan Yergert, the operator in charge of La Junta’s treatment facility, was helping Seaba clean out the previous director’s office when she found a pile of papers from the 1960s. They were all about the conduit, which she hadn’t heard of, even though she was born in town and has lived in the region her entire life. “It seems,” Yergert says, “like it’s been this crazy pipe dream forever.”

Read More:

This article was originally published in 5280 April 2024.
Daliah Singer
Daliah Singer
Daliah Singer is an award-winning writer and editor based in Denver. You can find more of her work at daliahsinger.com.