It's just a drop in the Pentagon's $716 billion budget, but an amendment proposed by Colorado Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet would give a flood of cash to El Paso County water districts battling contamination in the Widefield aquifer.
Bennet's amendment would provide as much as $9 million to reimburse water utilities in Security, Widefield and Fountain for what they laid out in 2016 after learning their drinking water contained unsafe levels of perfluorinated chemicals from toxic firefighting foam released by Peterson Air Force Base.
"This builds on years of our work with the Air Force to address ... contamination and is long overdue for the local water authorities who worked to provide safe drinking water to Colorado residents," Bennet said in an email. "We'll continue to push for its inclusion in the defense bill."
Security Water and Sanitation District would get up to $6 million to pay for a pipeline it installed to pump clean Pueblo Reservoir water to its more than 19,000 customers.
"That's something we have been working for and hoping for," said district General Manager Roy Heald.
Southern El Paso County water districts began piling up bills in May 2016 after tests of water from the aquifer revealed contamination levels up to 30 times more than the maximum recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Districts' officials assumed the Air Force would pay to fight the contamination and were shocked when the military refused to pay the bill. The Pentagon concluded it couldn't reimburse the districts without authorization from Congress.
That's where Bennet's amendment comes in. The brief measure piggybacks on a similar move to reimburse towns where water contamination came from National Guard bases and expands it to include active-duty posts including Peterson.
Bennet got support from Colorado Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, who signed on as a co-sponsor.
Heald said the senators have worked for months to figure out a fix for the utilities' financial woes.
"They have both been here to talk to us directly about these issues," he said.
But Heald isn't counting the federal cash just yet. The provision for the money is a tiny part of the massive National Defense Authorization Act, a bill that sets spending across the military and includes hundreds of policy tweaks and changes.
With $716 billion at stake, lawmakers are expected to fight for weeks over every word the bill contains.
Bennet will need Senate approval, which seems likely with bipartisan support. But then he will have to fight with House lawmakers who signed off on their version of the defense bill, which doesn't contain the water money.
Local water districts, though, have a winning record when it comes to congressional cash.
In last year's defense budget, work related to the Widefield aquifer got more than $27 million from lawmakers.
At least $47 million has been spent by local water districts or allocated by the military for southern El Paso County since 2016, including at least $38 million spent or budgeted by the Air Force to investigate the contamination, buy filters, procure clean water and erect long-term treatment plants over the next several years.
Contact Tom Roeder: 626-0240