Uncompahgre Valley slated for a second water supply source by 2025

One of two water basins that filter unclean water into drinkable water. The Project 7 water basins can hold between 500,000 and 900,000 gallons of water. (Cassie Knust/Montrose Daily Press)

When Project 7 began drawing up plans for a water resiliency program in 2019, its leaders didn’t plan to invest in connecting a raw water line from the Ridgway Reservoir to a new treatment plant in Ridgway.

The new treatment plant and water line would be designed so additional capacity can be added in the future, allowing a maximum capacity of approximately 10 million gallons per day, more than a 30% increase in drinking water supply for the region.

The plan to construct the Regional Water Supply Program in conjunction with the Ridgway Water Treatment Plant is a decision driven by water supply security. The project will add a second water source to the region while serving all Project 7 members.

The valley hasn’t yet experienced water supply interruption, but Project 7 intends to stay ahead of a slew of risks that could potentially affect over 50,000 people and thousands of local businesses.

The new treatment plant would allow direct access to existing water rights in the Ridgway Reservoir while building a system resilient to wildfire, drought and transmission interruptions in the Gunnison Tunnel.

Project 7 Water Authority is a wholesale water treatment provider that supplies to the City of Montrose, City of Delta, Town of Olathe, Tri-County Water Conservancy District and the Menoken and Chipeta water districts, although each entity owns its own water rights.

Although geographically the second smallest entity in the cooperative by size, the City of Montrose uses roughly 50% of the water supply due to population density, with about 8,000 residents using water services from Project 7.

The conversation around water availability, particularly on the Western Slope, isn’t a new one. Although water conservation is a growing concern in Colorado, the City of Montrose holds water rights for raw water supplies in order to meet projected usage demands beyond 2050, according to the city’s 2016 water conservation plan.

The Uncompahgre Valley has enough water from both a capacity and population standpoint, said Rick Huggins, lead engineer for the Project 7 Water Resiliency Program. “The question has always been, ‘Can you get it where it’s needed?’”

As it stands, the Gunnison River remains the only water supply source for the region, with one treatment facility to provide to the six entities within the cooperative.

The cooperative projected the overhead cost of the project to be between $50 – $70 million. The estimate includes the raw water line, but will become more specific as the design process progresses, said Miles Graham, spokesman for the resiliency program.

City of Montrose customers will see an increase in water rates on Jan. 1, 2022, due in part to Project 7’s elevated fees. Huggins noted that the impact of increasing wholesale rates for customers depends largely on the size and budget of the district.

Each district pays the same rates for the water supply, but depending on the size of the entity, may adjust its water budgets according to needs.

“Those local entities also have access to [resources like] the American Rescue Plan funds,” said Alex Ehrett.

Ehrett, along with Graham, is the community outreach, governmental affairs and funding strategist liaison for the project team.

“There are funds specifically slated for assistance for ratepayers and so the counties or [entities] at the local level have the ability to then potentially use that to help anybody who may be impacted by the rise. So that is also sort of on those individual entities to navigate that as well.”

To help offset costs of the project, the cooperative anticipates raising wholesale water rates for the next four to five years as well as pursuing outside funding.

Graham said the cost of water in the valley has been below inflation-adjusted values for a long time now. He also said that without purchasing power, receiving federal loans becomes more challenging. Project 7’s goal is to maximize each local dollar with outside funding, but in order to do so, it has to return water costs to roughly inflation-adjusted levels.

Montrose residential water bills will increase by $4.86 per 3,000 gallons of water used per month and increase $1.35 per 1,000 gallons used per month, due in part to the water supplier raising its own fees by 15%.

At this stage in the planning process, it’s impossible to predict the cost for each entity without knowing the ultimate program cost or the amount of outside state and federal support, said Graham.

By using a uniform rate structure for all entities to provide local funding, the cost will be shared equally throughout the valley and supplemented by aggressively seeking grants and low-interest loans.

As the process moves forward, the team will be able to test and determine which treatment technology is best for the new plant and raw water line, as well as finding opportunities to make use of existing water distribution infrastructure near the new facility site.

The cost may be higher to build the raw water line, but overall, the cost to run and operate will be lower since the water quality leaving the reservoir will provide a stable water supply, Huggins noted. The water will also be easier to treat, with less influence from rain events washing mud and silt in the river that have to be removed, allowing for mitigated operation costs.

“Ridgway Reservoir has a lot of elevation and a lot of energy stored in it and so we believe that we can bring water down from the reservoir to the site without pumping, which is nice,” said Huggins of the raw water line decision.

Water treatment plants often use electrical backup generators that run on diesel or natural gas, which is typically banned in the event of a wildfire, the engineer said. Because a gas-run generator on a tank of fuel presents a dangerous risk, utility companies usually shut off any natural gas in the area if a wildfire is present.

“So if you think about an emergency situation, having the ability to bring water down to this site and continue operations at the plant without having to pump it up from the river made a lot of sense. [It’s] a more sustainable solution than the other options for getting water to the site.”

Construction for the project is expected to begin in 2023. The new water line and treatment plan is slated to go online by 2025.

For more information on Project 7 and the resiliency program project, visit https://www.project7water.org/

Cassie Knust is a staff writer for the Montrose Daily Press.

Cassie Knust is a staff writer for the Montrose Daily Press.

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