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Colorado Springs-area water project leaders excited to put Southern Delivery System to the test

August 9, 2015 Updated: August 10, 2015 at 9:11 am
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Kim Mutchler, of Colorado Springs Utilities' government and corporate affairs, climbs onto the 10 million-gallon tank at the Southern Delivery System water treatment plant in Colorado Springs on Aug. 6, 2015. The $829 million project is currently ahead of schedule and is forecasted to be $156 million below budget. Photo Logan Riely, The Gazette

Decades of planning and an $829 million investment in Colorado Springs Utilities' biggest water project ever will be put to the test next month, and the folks behind the Southern Delivery System can't wait.

Like children anticipating new bicycles for Christmas, project leaders are eager - not anxious - for the tests to begin. Their confidence is matched only by their pride in the project.

The massive undertaking has seen 50 miles of 66- and 90-inch-diameter pipelines buried, including a 1-mile tunnel under Interstate 25, Fountain Creek and railroad tracks.

The pipelines are to funnel up to 50 million gallons a day of Arkansas River water to Colorado Springs, Fountain, Security and Pueblo West.

The water will flow from the Pueblo Dam through three new pump stations to a 100-acre water treatment plant built in Colorado Springs. The plant's developed area alone could hold 77 football fields, noted Kim Mutchler, of CSU government and corporate affairs.

The entire system is to begin water delivery next April. But before it does, more tests will be done through September and October.

Since pipeline construction began in 2011, every piece of pipeline has been tested upon arrival, with each section water-tested once installed. Pump station testing started in July and is continuing into the fall, and small tests have been done for several months at the treatment plant.

Next month, tests are expected to begin sending water through multiple stages of treatment. Then several system-wide tests will be done through the fall before SDS starts serving customers next year.

Utilities customers have seen their water rates raised four times since 2011 to help pay for the project, but they're also benefiting from $156 million in slashed costs that have reduced the project tab from $985 million to $829 million.

Customers were expected in 2009 to face seven consecutive years of 12 percent increases, followed by two years of 4 percent hikes. Instead, costs rose 12 percent in 2011 and 2012 and were raised 10 percent in 2013 and 2014.

Some of the biggest savings, says SDS Program Director John Fredell, came from the 3.62 percent interest rate on $180 million in 40-year bonds issued in September 2010. In all, $475 million in bonds have been issued.

But unforeseen cost cuts came, too, as engineers and others reviewed completed designs and plans, then unabashedly pointed to better, less expensive ways to accomplish what needed to be done.

To wit:

- The sprawling campus envisioned for the water treatment plant and its 10 million-gallon tank was reconfigured to put all essential functions under one roof, saving 4 miles of piping and more than $65 million.

- A contract engineer from the Broomfield-based MWH insisted that the three pump stations could be built for under $100 million, contrary to the contractor's contention. So the project was rebid and built for $75 million. "Those are the benefits of having a really experienced engineer on your projects," Fredell said.

- Several million more dollars were saved when a program leader noted that single welds instead of double welds could be used on pipes not handling high pressure.

- Another $10 million was saved when Dan Higgins, then the SDS construction manager, decided the pipeline beneath I-25 and Fountain Creek should be one long tunnel rather than a series of short tunnels using extensive open trenches, as envisioned by a consulting engineer. The new method also minimized impacts to floodplains, wetlands and mature trees.

SDS leaders also changed the type of pumps used, opting for more expensive $1 million vertical pumps - 11 in all - that will last longer, have lower electric costs and produce a higher discharge pressure, so another pump station didn't have to be built in Pueblo.

"The most expensive commodity is electricity to push the water," Fredell said.

But the humongous project also has brought financial benefits hidden to the casual observer.

When the SDS started in 2009, along with the recession, "We wanted this to be our own stimulus," Fredell said. "We went on the road to Pueblo and El Paso and Fremont counties and did workshops on how to work with us.

"Only one company in Colorado can build this size diameter pipe. We got other companies from out of state to bid. But they (the Colorado firm) got over $100 million worth of business during the recession. This project helped keep them from having layoffs."

Contracts set a goal of giving 30 percent of business to Colorado companies, with a penalty for those that didn't.

"They've exceeded the local spend," Fredell said. "We've had over 300 Colorado companies involved and spent $650 million through June, total, and $550 million has stayed in Colorado - $269 million to employers in El Paso County" plus $73 million in Pueblo County and $208 million elsewhere in the state.

The toughest part of the project has been the permitting and planning, he said, with more than 200 major permits obtained, and about 350 total.

The greatest challenges there were creating the 3,000-page Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which took five years, and obtaining the 1041 Permit from Pueblo County.

The EIS was handled by Keith Riley, SDS deputy program director for CSU, with help from Bill Van Derveer, assistant SDS program director with MWH.

"The two of them were just brilliant in the way they approached it, got the science for the EIS, got all the people together, and worked well with all the agencies, including the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)," Fredell said.

Two other key players, both now retired from CSU, were Gary Bostrom, chief water services officer, and Bruce McCormick, also a water services officer.

"That's one of the things I'm proudest of, the people we've had work on this thing. They were just ingenious," Fredell said. "The credit goes to people like that.

"This project has been so much fun. I've gotten all my white hair on this project. It's definitely challenged everybody."

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Contact Billie Stanton Anleu: 636-0371

Twitter @stantonanleu

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