Feelings mixed for 2007 on Ute Water Project

By Kevin Wilson: CNJ Staff Writer

PORTALES — With 2007 being touted as the year of water by Gov. Bill Richardson, the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority is optimistic it will get maximum support for the Ute Water Project from the 2007 New Mexico Legislature.

The Authority hopes for the same optimism from the 110th Congress as its members see federal support as absolute necessity for the pipeline that would supply water from the Ute Reservoir to member communities.

Project Manager Scott Verhines told Authority members during Wednesday’s meeting at the Memorial Building in Portales he will work in January with eastern New Mexico legislators to get about $7.3 million in state funding. That total includes a $5 million earmark from Richardson, a recommendation of $1.84 million to the Legislature by the water trust board and $500,000 from Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., the incoming chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Verhines said another aim is to build support for the Legislature to add up to $25 million to the state water trust.

Under current plans, the Ute Water Project would split its $436 million price tag into a 10/15/75 formula — with each number representing a percentage of funding to come from local, state and federal entities, respectively.

Authority members, primarily Chairman David Lansford and Vice Chairman Orlando Ortega, have long said the project cannot be done without a concerted effort from New Mexico’s Congressional Delegation.

Verhines said Bingaman is planning to introduce authorization for the project as soon as possible in the 110th Congress and hold a public hearing in New Mexico soon afterward.

Verhines sees the public hearing as an opportunity to give Congress members’ public input on the need for the project, and advised the Authority to schedule sessions to give citizens information in advance of the hearing to build support.

“It would be a big mistake to have a hearing and have nobody show up,” Verhines said. “It would be imperative to have everybody and the important everybodies here.”

Lansford said he and Ortega recently participated in a conference call with staffs for Bingaman, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., in order to get best-case and worst-case scenarios for authorization of the project. Lansford said the best-case scenarios pointed to late 2007 or early 2008, with funding coming over the next 10 to15 years until the project is complete.

Members asked how that timeline would be impacted by an environmental impact study scheduled to take about 26 months.

Chris Gorbach, a representative of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said such a study would be more likely to speed the process along since it would help answer questions Congressional members are sure to ask, and the study would have a shelf life of 10 years or more.

Ortega spoke at length near the end of the meeting about the frustration of continually doing studies. He said he worries there may be a time when the Authority is not able to put in the effort or finances to secure federal approval for the project because efforts were focused on repeating studies every few years that point to the same conclusions.

Ortega said time only worked against the Authority and made the project more expensive. To that point, Gary Watkins of Portales asked what would happen if the project is approved by Congress, and then its cost rises between the time Congress was asked for the funding and when it is approved. Verhines said the project and others like it have index escalator clauses, meaning all parties understand funding needs will rise because of natural economic factors. Legislation would cover those rises.

In other business at the meeting:
• Lansford asked Verhines to set up another conference call with staffs for Udall, Bingaman and Domenici to get a more solid timeline for authorization and funding possibilities, and to set up the call so every Authority member could join in.

n Verhines told the Authority he had three major objections to the Northeast New Mexico Regional Water Plan. He said he objected to the possibility of Harding County building a dam to claim water from Ute Creek before it reaches Ute Reservoir, and that the plan has no mechanism for balancing supply and demand levels.

His main objection was to raising the minimum acceptable water level in the reservoir. Verhines said if the reservoir’s water level was too high, as was the case earlier in 2006, it would be released to Texas, and he had no objection to that. However, the minimum water level only becomes relevant during drought years.

“In a drought year,” Verhines said, “the time you need water the most … you’ll bump into that (higher minimum) and you can’t touch it.”

• Members tentatively set the next meeting for 3 p.m. Jan. 10 in Texico.