Core group in position to move forward

By Kevin Wilson: CNJ staff writer

Editor’s note: Scott Verhines is the manager of the Ute Water Project. Based in Albuquerque, Verhines and his administrative team provide administrative, technical and program responsibilities for the project. The project, at a current cost of $436 million, would supply water via pipeline from the Ute Reservoir in Quay County for the eight members of the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority — Clovis, Portales, Texico, Melrose, Grady, Elida, and Curry and Roosevelt counties.

He spoke Thursday from Santa Fe, where the 2007 Legislature works on what Gov. Bill Richardson has touted as the “Year of Water.”

Q:Recent meeting discussions have dealt with the NEPA process. What is that, for those unfamiliar with its role in the project?

A:NEPA is the National Environmental Policy Act. All projects that have federal funding or potential federal funding have a NEPA component. The purpose of NEPA is to investigate and document potential environmental impacts and to develop measures for mitigating those potential impacts.

Q:What are specific things NEPA might address with this project?

A:An example is the Arkansas river shiner that’s in the Canadian River below the Ute Reservoir. There could be plants or animals that are affected by this project. If not, we document that. If so, how do we mitigate it?

Blackwater Draw is an example of cultural importance and is culturally rich in terms of artifacts. If we were to have a pipeline go through Blackwater Draw, is the pipeline going to affect any of those artifacts?

There have been a number of NEPA-related activities (on this project) going back to the 1980s. The contract we have in place is now getting started, and the contract time frame is approximately 26 months’ worth of work.

Q:So if these studies have been going on for decades, and they say the same thing, why does the authority have to keep paying for them? That’s the view a few authority members have given in recent meetings.

A:There are two issues there. One is that many of the political leadership in eastern New Mexico are frustrated by the amount of time it takes to put a project together. We share their frustration. We’d all like to be digging dirt and putting those pipelines in today. The reality is these projects take a long time. We’re looking at other similar projects around the country. We’re well in the time frame for getting a project of this type together.

The project has changed from its earlier design for several reasons. Back then there were 12 to 17 members of the authority. The project was originally envisioned to go to Jal. The project, in its size and who it’s going to serve, has changed dramatically. We’re down to the core membership to do the NEPA process in full, and that’s what we’re about to begin.

Q:Does the smaller membership make it easier or harder to complete a large project like this?

A:It becomes many times easier, once you get down to a core group who is really on board and you don’t have members on the fence. About six years ago, we looked at a (similar) large-scale rural water project. One of the things we heard in their lessons learned is that you’ll go through a round or two of who’s in, who’s out.

Q:Do you worry about smaller members like Grady, Elida and Melrose, who don’t have the tax base of Clovis and Portales?

A:We worry about them simply because this project is as important to them as any other member. It needs both the smaller members and the larger members. It needs the small member so it remains a rural shared project. It needs the larger members so it gets spread out so nobody in particular gets hurt.

Q:How’s the Year of Water working out so far?

A:There are four bills we are tracking. There is a bill that’s been introduced on the House side that has $70 million earmarked for this project. There is a companion bill that has been introduced in the senate that has $40 million committed to this project.

Back in September of last year, the governor announced his Year of Water initiative, which includes $5 million for planning and design on that project. We have not seen that bill introduced yet, but we expect it will be at any time.

The fourth one … for several years now, we have been working through the process that the water trust board manages. Last year, the Ute Pipeline project was the No. 1 project ranked out of the water trust board for funding, (and) it was funded at the $1.25 million level. This year, we were the second-ranked project … and we have requested $2.2 million. If I recall there are 31 total projects totaling somewhere around $68 million.

Q:The funding in the project calls for 75 percent federal funding. Does the Year of Water help on a federal level?

A:If either the House or Senate appropriation bills … were to be successful and close to (the original appropriation), it would make the statement our congressional delegation needs. They are looking for the state to step up and say, “Not only do we support these programs in concept, but we’re going to support them with dollars as well.”

Q:Let’s say everything comes up roses — the state Legislature approves all of these appropriations, and our state congressional delegation gets colleagues to approve and fund the project. When can construction begin?

A:Let me preface that by saying it is not likely that we would get all of the federal dollars in one appropriation. Our hope is we would get the entire federal commitment over the next 10 years. If we could get the first installment, we would be able to begin the first phase of construction in three years.

Q:That’s longer than your current contract with the authority, which is up for renewal in April. Do your long-term views mean you want to stay aboard?

A:We have up to a four-year contract, renewable annually for program management services. We will complete our second year of providing those services at the end of April. The reason it’s set at a four-year limit is because that’s the state law.

I’ve told the authority there would be nothing better than to work ourselves out of a job. We work for the water authority, we’d like to continue to do so. We believe we’re providing the services they’re expecting from us. We’d like to continue to do that.

Q:Does it concern you that some authority members have discussed disappointment during recent meetings? At the most recent meeting, Portales Mayor Orlando Ortega said he was frustrated because the authority is paying $35,000 a month for your administrative services and the biggest result has been paying for more studies and consulting firms.

A:I think that kind of statement is born from frustration. We don’t have a pipeline yet. I’m taking it in that light. I don’t take it as an affront. I didn’t take it that way.

This is what they’ve developed as their expectation of what program management services would consist of. We feel we are doing the things that are requested by the water authority.

I now have a seven-year history of working on the engineering side and the program management side. We bring a lot of continuity to the project.

Based on an interview by CNJ Staff Writer Kevin Wilson and edited for style, clarity and space.