As the state of Colorado faces $21.2 billion in costs to update its drinking water, stormwater and wastewater systems over the next 20 years, President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposal could provide crucial dollars, particularly for small water districts with few customers to share the costs.

An infusion of one-time federal spending could help the state catch up after its water and wastewater infrastructure both received a “C-” last year on the American Society of Civil Engineers report card. The state got mediocre grades, in large part because the average age of the state’s major drinking water infrastructure is approaching 50 years old, the report said. 

While the need to update the systems that provide and protect clean water is a “mounting issue,” unlike other infrastructure, it can be easily neglected, Colorado Municipal League Executive Director Kevin Bommer said.

“It's different when you're driving the car and you hit a pothole and your hubcap comes off,” Bommer said. “You're a lot more personally engaged with what happens. But with water and wastewater infrastructure, water comes into the house, wastewater leaves — we don't think about it.”

It’s not until pipes or water treatment plants fail that it comes to the forefront of public concern, Bommer said.

Within a span of less than a month this spring, two water mains burst in the Colorado Springs region, turning major thoroughfares into rivers and causing major inconveniences for drivers. A Colorado Springs Utilities main break flooded the intersection of North Academy Boulevard and Maizeland Road and closed the roadway for a week. Another main break in Woodmen Hills Metropolitan District shut down Woodmen Road between Highway 24 and Meridian Road for over two days.

To fully update water and wastewater systems to help prevent similar failures, it would take $10.3 billion of spending on drinking water projects and $10.9 billion for wastewater, stormwater and pollution prevention projects, according to the state Water Quality Control Division’s annual survey.

Nearly $1.5 billion of the drinking water projects are prioritized for the next upcoming year or so. But the state’s Water State Revolving Fund can only provide between $80 to $90 million annually in loans for those projects, said Erin Garcia, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. 

Wastewater needs in the next year approximately, will cost around $2 billion. The state expects to fund $90 to $100 million of those projects, leaving a growing gap in water and wastewater infrastructure funding needs.

For large providers, such as Colorado Springs Utilities or Denver Water, keeping up with infrastructure costs is not as challenging as it is for their smaller and, in many cases, rural counterparts, employees for both said.

Colorado Springs expects to spend $67 million on water projects this year, including starting to replace a 66-inch water pipeline that is cracking and 50 years old. It has also budgeted for $19 million in wastewater projects, according to the annual operating and financial plan.

In contrast, Cherokee Metropolitan District, which serves Cimarron Hills and Schriever Air Force Base, had to prioritize between updating its 17-mile water main built in the 1960s and a new $43 wastewater treatment plant to meet new state regulations, said Amy Lathen, general manager of the district. The pipeline project is on hold.

“Unfortunately, the funding piece is always the question that eludes us. (We are) hoping that infrastructure funding will come from the federal government,” Ann Terry, executive director for the Special District Association of Colorado, a group that represents districts that provide water, sewer, fire protection and other services.

A very small piece of the $111 billion Biden has proposed to spend on replacing the lead pipes and upgrading water and wastewater infrastructure nationally could help offset the costs in a major way for customers of small district's like Cherokee, Lathen said.

“That kind of clean water money would be tremendous for a district like us,” she said.

Colorado Concern, a business coalition, is advocating for state and federal lawmakers to ask for $3 billion from Biden's proposed infrastructure funding to be set aside for Colorado water projects, with much of that figure going to projects that would serve rural areas.

The bipartisan group that put together the list of priorities would also like to see grant funding options as opposed to loans, said Brian Jackson, senior manager of Western Water at the Environmental Defense Fund.

“We shouldn’t saddle our small rural communities who are struggling already with long-term debt,” he said.

In addition to aging facilities, state mandates to improve water quality are also a major driver of costs for water providers large and small.

For example, the state is tightening its requirements for removing nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, from wastewater to help prevent toxic algae blooms that can lower the oxygen levels in the water and cause large fish die-offs.

A second proposed rule will require wastewater treatment plants to release water into streams and rivers at cooler temperatures, said Keith Riley, general manager of water and wastewater operations for Colorado Springs Utilities. Warm water contributes to algae blooms and is more common when water levels drop during drought.

As water becomes more scarce and the demands on it grow, future projects should also consider agriculture and the environmental needs as well as municipalities, Jackson said.  For example, working to shore up the infrastructure and replant the burn scars in northern Colorado following last years record-setting fires could protect both hillsides and water delivery systems that can see extreme sedimentation from fires, he said. 

"Colorado has not done a good job over the last 50 years of investing in our natural infrastructure, we have got lots of catching up to do," he said. 

Contact the writer at mary.shinn@gazette.com or (719) 429-9264.

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