Will federal funds flow to Colorado water projects?

By Floyd Ciruli

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter attempted to stop funding water projects, including those in Colorado. He was prevented from pulling the plug by the state’s delegation and with the help of the national water lobby. But it marked the end of significant appropriations for water projects and the close of the era of new dams and diversions directed by Washington.

Colorado did not stop advancing its water agenda. The need for storing water, reusing water and moving water from areas of surplus to populations of need continued. But the projects are now mostly funded through local rates or taxpayers. Rueter-Hess Reservoir in Douglas County, the Southern Delivery System of Pueblo and El Paso counties, Prairie Waters in Arapahoe County, Windy Gap Firming Project and the Northern Integrated Supply Project in Northern Colorado (both at the tail-end of their long permitting processes) and the Moffat Collection System Project sponsored by Denver Water represent $4 billion in water investments planned or built in the last decade.

After 40 years of financial drought from Washington, there is now a renewed interest in funding water projects. It reflects a political consensus that the economy needs a burst of construction spending, and because of decades of underinvestment, is beginning to show up in deteriorated roads, bridges, airports and dams. But, water especially has become top of mind for both politicians and the public after variable weather has brought challenges to the nation’s water infrastructure through droughts, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and massive snowfall. And, of course, high-profile water pollution from spills and lead pipes has been front-page news.

The need for infrastructure upgrades has been a topic for years in D.C., but with little progress due to partisan differences and lack of money. Since the implementation of the sequester budget limitations of 2013 infrastructure spending has been off the table, but in the 2016 campaign both parties and their candidates agreed that infrastructure spending was a priority. President Trump has talked about a trillion dollar infrastructure commitment, but it has not yet translated into a specific proposal. So far, he has proposed the end of the budget sequester and a hefty increase in military spending.

A new study shows $4.6 trillion is required to address the country’s infrastructure needs over the next decade. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country’s infrastructure a D+ and listed dams and waste water projects as needing $150 billion.

Assuming there is $100 billion for water out of President Trump’s $1 trillion proposal, Colorado should qualify for at least $1 billion just based on its population. Those funds could be a catalyst to attract other state funds to jump-start the overdue investment in new projects. In fact, pledging local funds will help advance Colorado’s appeal. Intense competition for the funds will come from other states with larger populations and well-placed congressional delegations. Fortunately, Colorado is well-positioned with its just completed state water plan, its recent history of building successful projects and its well-developed statewide network of advocates for water development.

The Colorado State Water Plan has identified $3 billion to $6 billion in new projects and programs needed by 2050 to serve a near doubling of the population. At least half of the amount would be locally raised, but new infrastructure funding from D.C. could be a catalyst to get the process moving.

Floyd Ciruli is president of Ciruli Associates, which has worked with the Colorado Water Congress and numerous water utilities, including Northern Water, Parker Water and Pueblo Water.


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