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Ark Valley Voice

The Ongoing Fight to Make Good on a 60-Year-Old Promise

By Administrator

May 11, 2022

Sixty years after former President John Kennedy came to Pueblo and, in the midst of a great celebration, signed his name to a massive water project authorized by Congress, what became known as the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, created to deliver water from the western slope to the eastern plains, is yet to be finished. Despite repeated budget requests from, currently, Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper and, in previous years, Senators Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner, one phase – the last phase–of the project remains undone.

The entirety of the project covers a total of 217 miles, but distance is not the factor so much as complexity and terrain.

The first 87 are an entity in and of themselves, involving construction of reservoirs and dams and tunnels and let’s not forget a hydro-electric power plant and fish hatchery, as well. All much needed. All built within the mountains and all that implies. Those projects have been finished for more than 30 years.

The remaining project – the last project of the whole shooting match – is yet to be started, despite the passage of time. And, in many ways, the Ark Valley Conduit, a 130-mile conduit delivering clean drinking water from Pueblo Dam to the residents in the Arkansas River Valley, including those living in part of Kiowa County, is the most straightforward project of them all.

Promises aside, science alone supports the need. In previous years, the Independent has covered the release of water quality studies, some of which have indicated concerning levels of contaminants in wells along the path the conduit is scheduled to run.

But obstacles – both economic and political – have continued to stand in the way of a mission that has become historic.

The ink from President Kennedy’s pen was hardly dry when efforts started to get sufficient funding to complete the Ark-Valley Conduit. Requests submitted to Congress were often unsuccessful, thwarted by budget shortfalls or other priorities.

Even in the years when funding for several million dollars was announced, the passage of time requiring the repeat of former studies and increasing number of studies newly required often ate up the allocated funds before they could be put to any visible-by-the-public use.

And common sense alone dictates that, with the price of building the conduit estimated at $500 million, an allocation of $1 million to $2 million per year is noteworthy for its effort but unimpressive in taking significant steps toward completion.

Meanwhile, some of the people in the Arkansas River Valley continue to be at potential risk using water containing contaminants that are probably not so great for their health.

That is not to say the FryingPan-Arkansas Project, as a whole, did not have its advocates over the years.

Following the Dust Bowl, it was apparent to farmers and ranchers that adequate amounts of water in the Arkansas River was absolutely crucial for irrigation. People looked to the Western Slope where “snowpack was abundant”.. (Those were the days, as they say.)

And those farmers, ranchers and advocates for western slope water coming to southeastern Colorado didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday. They knew they would need lobbyists to sell their idea in faraway Washington D.C.

They also knew that “it takes money to get money” (see previous statement regarding “turnip trucks”). Put more bluntly, they had to raise money to pay the lobbyists.

And thus was born the great mid-1900s golden frying pan sale, surely one of the most creative and ingenious fundraisers ever created under the High Plains sky. Promoters of the project, armed with frying pans painted gold, began peddling (figuratively speaking as it’s doubtful they actually rode bicycles) to buyers up and down the valley, all in an effort to raise money to pay the guys who would go to D.C. and lobby for water.

According to the Southeastern Water Conservancy District (SWCD) website, “The sale of golden frying pans in the valley was brisk. Burros were used to carry the frying pans to towns up and down the Arkansas valley. During Water Week in January of 1955 groups were able to buy small frying pans for $5 and large ones for $100 or more. More than $30,000 was raised by the end of the week. The money was used to send backers of the Project to Washington, D.C.”

Their efforts were ultimately successful, helped in no small part by the sheer tenacity of a representative named J. Edgar Chenoweth who championed the project in Congress for the better part of a decade, despite what must have been deep disappointment at seeing the project repeatedly pass in the U.S. Senate only to be voted down by his own colleagues in the House.

Once signed into law, the project took off like a shot. Over the next 26 years – without interruption -, there was construction of the Ruedi Dam and Reservoir, the Boustead Tunnel that transported water from the western slope east, the expansion of Turquoise and Twin Lakes Reservoirs along with raising Sugar Loaf Dam and construction of the Mt. Elbert Conduit, construction of the Mt. Elbert Powerplant – the largest hydro-electric power plant in the state- and, finally, construction of Pueblo Dam. The project, begun in 1962 was completed to its current stage with the opening of the dedication of the Fish Hatchery at Pueblo Reservoir on September 28, 1990.

If you hear the sound of screeching brakes, you get the picture about what happened next.

Fast forward to 2009.

Since Senator Michael Bennet was sworn into office, water projects have been on his top list of priorities, including the Ark Valley Conduit.

In 2009, he secured $5 million for the project. In 2013, he secured an environmental impact study – a prerequisite to all else. In 2014, he secured $2 million in funding, “reprogrammed” from the Department of Interior. Another $2 million was secured in 2016 followed by $3 million in 2017 along with a joint letter from Bennet, Senator Gardner and Representatives Tipton and Buck urging the Bureau of Reclamation to make the conduit a top priority. Then, in 2019, he secured $10 million in funding followed by $28 million in 2020 to actually take the steps for “pre-construction.

And on May 5, 2022, Bennet along with Senator John Hickenlooper continued the mission with a letter requesting $10.059 million from the FY23 budge. The purpose? “To allow stakeholders to partner with the Bureau of Reclamation to perform and maintain on-time delivery of pre-construction activity including updating environmental documents, design activity, contract negotiation, land acquisition, and right of way work”.

Okay, so it’s not exactly “bring out the backhoes, boys” time, but it’s progress. Major progress. And, with $60 million allocated over just 13 years following decades of only incremental progress, one can only hope that the momentum will continue to build.

With no small relevance to the sobering circumstances of today, it seems only fitting to reflect back on what President Kennedy said upon signing the project into life, as they were printed in the Pueblo Chieftain at the time.

“When people come to this state and see how vitally important water is, not just to this state, but to the West, to the United States, then they realize how important it is that all the people of this country support this project that belongs to all the people of this country.”

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