Pipe dream no longer

Ute Lake was built 40 years ago when state officials dammed the Canadian River near Logan.

By Dave Gragg

All the experts agree: Eastern New Mexico is running out of water. But there is a solution: It’s more than 87 miles long and will cost more than $200 million to build.
If the Ute pipeline ever becomes reality, the region’s water crisis could be a century away, rather than just decades.
Here’s the plan:
Ute Lake near Logan in Quay County was formed 40 years ago when state officials dammed the Canadian River near Logan. It is owned by the Interstate Stream Commission. Officials say the reservoir contains enough water to eliminate shortages for the entire eastern side of the state.
Twelve public entities — the communities of Logan, San Jon, Tucumcari, Clovis, Melrose, Texico, Grady, Elida and Portales, and the counties of Curry, Roosevelt and Quay — have reserved 24,000 acre feet of Ute Lake’s water. That’s about 7.8 trillion gallons. They’ve paid the ISC $36,000 for what officials have termed a right of first refusal.
That means the dozen entities, known as the Ute Water Commission, have access to the water through 2006. After that, the ISC can sell the water to the highest bidder, unless the commission can show it has a plan in place for distributing the water.
Until the contract expires, the commission can purchase up to 24,000 acre feet per year from the ISC for $25 per acre foot, or about $600,000.
Water costs would be shared by the dozen entities, which have a combined population of about 73,000.
But first, a pipeline must be built that would allow the water to travel from Ute Lake to each community involved in the project. That price tag, an estimated $212 million, is the reason the project has been discussed for decades, but remains a dream.
Progress has been made in recent weeks. The Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority was formed and charged with funding and overseeing the building of the pipeline. The Ute Water Commission had only the authority to reserve water.
The concept for an Eastern New Mexico Rural Water System — the official name of the pipeline project — is fairly simple: 87 1/2 miles of main piping or “trunk line” that varies from 54 inches to 42 inches in diameter. It would run from the Ute reservoir to Portales.
Plans call for the trunk line to run from Logan through San Jon to Grady and then on to Clovis and Portales. A number of smaller lines or “laterals” will shoot off the trunk line, bringing water to other areas, including Tucumcari, Elida, Melrose, Texico and the more outlying areas of the counties. Officials said the lateral lines could total 95 miles.
The water will be pumped from the reservoir to the 4,500-foot caprock, between San Jon and Grady. From there, engineers believe gravity will pull the water down to the remaining communities.
Engineers also plan to have the water treated at its first stop in Logan, which will eliminate the need for each entity to have its own treatment plant, said project engineer Bill McFarland with Smith Engineering.
“It’s cheaper to have one treatment plant,” he said. “If each entity had its own treatment plant, it’d add up.”
But the first cost that concerns the region is the cost of building the pipeline.
The federal government picked up 80 percent of the tab in similar projects in South Dakota. Using that state’s funding model, New Mexico would have to come up with $21.2 million and another $21.2 million would have to come from the 12 entities the pipeline would serve.
Each entity would pay for construction costs, operation and maintenance of the pipeline and facilities and the actual water depending on how much water it had reserved.
And if all goes as planned, officials have estimated the average consumer’s water bill would increase $5 to $10 per month.
That’s if all goes as planned.