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Shortage of funds may slow Northlands sewer line project

by Bill Knowles
As March 31 approaches, the city of Walsenburg is facing a deadline set by the Colorado Supreme Court in an effort to bring the city into line with the Ackerman decree and solve the Northlands’ need for water and sewer.    
    The city has been supplying the water needs of the Northlands, that strip of businesses that runs along Highway 85-87 and includes the developments just to the west and east of the highway.  It is also supplying the water for Toltec, the airport and the cemetery all north of the Hogback.  And in the process, the city has had to augment 55 acre feet of water a year.
    The Northlands annexation was approved by the citizens of Walsenburg in November 2008.  The annexation allows the city to recoup money through sales taxes what it will spend to comply with the Colorado Supreme Court ruling bringing the city into agreement with the Ackerman decree.  The Ackerman decree requires that for every gallon of water the city provides to Northlands, it must put two gallons back into the Cucharas River. 
    So the city is dumping 110 acre feet into the river to satisfy the demands of other Cucharas water share holders.  When the city installs the sewer line that will go from the Northlands over the Hogback and down to the new wastewater treatment facility where the water will be treated and pumped into the river, Walsenburg will only have five acre feet of water a year to augment.  The plan will allow the city to save around 16,250,000 gallons of water annually.  And one would think that all would be well.
    If the plan works, the city will be spared a possible $10,000-a-day fine that the state could levy against Walsenburg if it doesn’t continue to augment the water that is lost.
    But there’s a fly in the ointment.  Loans provided by the USDA that Walsenburg was counting on to pay for most of the sewer line project may be drying up. 
    The nationwide economic breakdown can be blamed.  It has so impacted the coffers of the federal and state governments, that funds are drying up at the state level.  And the “politics of austerity” is driving the federal government to start reducing their spending even more. 
    According to Lennece Saracino at the USDA, funds for capital improvements have been frozen.  That means the loans that Walsenburg was counting on to finance some of the Northlands project may be drying up although Saracino couldn’t talk about any specifics.
    In an effort to avoid any run ins with the state should the Northlands project be delayed, the city is filing a motion in water court that asks for a change in a water right that will add augmentation as a use to the current rights the city owns in the City of Walsenburg, Ditch Number five. 
    Currently the rights owned by the city are municipal, agricultural and industrial.  This change in use will allow the state to issue a new substitute water supply plan (SWSP) under a different section of the water rights rules which will be for one year with four one-year extensions. 
    This new SWSP will be conditional upon the city moving forward with the Northlands sewer line which is finding itself hampered by the lack of funds.
    However, if the city’s motion is approved in water court, then it will be able to argue that it is taking necessary steps to comply with the state mandate.  Interim City Administrator Don Saling feels it will be at least two years before money begins to loosen up and funds the USDA uses for capital improvements will be unfrozen.
    And according to Saling another hurdle developing, is the State Engineers Office is requesting a new preliminary engineering report on the Northlands Water Project.  The last PER was filed with that office two years ago.
    Saling speculated, “But if money to fund the Northlands water project won’t be available for another two years, I would think that we could simply update the current report.  Then in two more years, when the funds are available, we could commission a fresh report and move forward on the project.”

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