Officials say Ute project needs public support

Marlena Hartz: CNJ Staff Writer

Money is on the mind of Clovis Mayor David Lansford, who believes a 90-mile pipeline could end woes cast on eastern New Mexico by reoccurring droughts and dwindling groundwater supplies.

But the proposed project, which would siphon water from the Ute Reservoir near Logan and pipe it to eastern New Mexico communities, carries a hefty price, and local officials aren’t sure if the money will ever materialize.

An estimated $300 million is needed to fund the project.
“I have come to realize that it will not be easy to get that amount of money,” Lansford said Wednesday in a meeting of the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority.

Lansford and fellow Authority members sojourned to Washington, D.C., last week for meetings with the state’s congressional delegation. The message carried back from Washington was mixed, tinged with hope and discouragement.

The good news for Lansford and company: Sens. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., have agreed to pitch legislation to the Senate in two weeks, ENMRWA officials said. However, the project failed to garner the necessary support when it was introduced in the last congressional session by Bingaman.
Snagging funding for the project, the senators cautioned water authority members, will not be easy. Especially when the ENMRWA is leaning on having 80 percent of the project funded federally.

In lieu of meeting with Reps. Heather Wilson, R.-N.M., Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Steve Pearce, R-N.M., local officials met the representatives’ staff members. They also met with the Bureau of Reclamation, an oversight authority for such water projects.

“I had a sobering experience in Washington,” said Lansford, who caught snippets of a harried Sen. Domenici’s attention in elevators and during shuttle rides.

“But when you are in a situation like that you can either say ‘woe is me.’ Or you can restart your system and do a better job.”
That was exactly what Lansford called for Wednesday.

“In the past, it has been a few people pushing a huge train. We need to get thousands of people to push the train,” he said.

Public support is integral to propelling the project, Lansford said. The citizens of the community need to be re-educated about the project and pulled aboard, he said.
Backed by both senators, Lansford remains hopeful the project has a tangible future.

The water authority and the congressional delegation has pledged to push for the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to meet in Clovis during August to pitch the pipeline. That meeting, wherever it is held, is the precursor to reintroducing the legislation for funding in the 110th congressional meeting.

“The third time may be the charm,” Lansford said.

“It would a grave mistake,” countered Ute Water Pipeline Project Manager Scott Verhines, “if we pulled off having that meeting here, and the citizenry did not come out and show their support for the project. We need to generate the interest for them to be here.”

Supplying water for residential use was always the intended purpose of Ute Reservoir. The lake was carved out in the 1960s in anticipation of water shortages. Since then, it has idled on that end, and morphed into a popular tourist attraction in an arid, land bound region, abuzz with jet skis and boats in the summer. Fed by the Canadian River, which rises in Colorado and flows into New Mexico, the reservoir is a renewable source of water.

A South Dakota pipeline project to which local officials looked for guidance, the Lewis and Clark Rural Water System, has been besieged by problems.

Funding for that 337-mile long pipe has been parceled piecemeal, and locals there aren’t certain when the endeavor will wrap up.

Arguments over land rights between the local government and residents also erupted when the pipeline route called for 70-foot-wide easements across private lands.