Ute Water Project reaches delay

By Kevin Wilson: Freedom New Mexico

Some delays are inevitable for the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority, such as in Washington, D.C. Some delays it would like to avoid, such as in Santa Fe.

Authority members found out an omnibus bill that included authorization for the Ute Water Project will not be introduced in a lame duck session for the 110th Congress, and will be punted to the 111th Congress in January.

Regarding Santa Fe, Joe Thompson, a consultant for the state side of authorization of the project, told authority members Thursday he wanted to address the state Legislature’s Interim Water Committee on Tuesday in preparation for the upcoming Legislature.

Thompson would pitch draft legislation to restructure the authority as an official water authority — the current body operates more as a joint powers agreement, and authority status would help acquire better bonding rates.

Portales Mayor and authority Vice Chair Orlando Ortega was opposed to bringing the current draft legislation forward because it gives the water authority ultimate control over the city’s water system. He said his city would make its opposition known to the committee.

“The city of Portales wants the legislation to include language that protects the integrity of our system so Portales can continue to own, operate and expand our water system without any threat of condemnation or eminent domain,” Ortega said in a prepared statement following the meeting. “Currently, the draft legislation allows the authority to plan, develop, purchase, acquire, own, operate, establish and construct the rural water pipeline within and without the boundary of the authority for water systems and for wastewater systems. That’s our greatest opposition.”

Unlike other entities in the authority, Portales owns its water system. Portales City Manager Debi Lee said she and Ortega don’t think the authority intends to take control of Portales’ water systems, but they don’t want to risk legislation that would provide such an opportunity.

Thompson responded the differences could be addressed after bringing the draft legislation forward, and addressing the interim committee would not bind them to bring forward that legislation, or any legislation, to the 2009 Legislature.

If draft legislation didn’t reach the interim committee, Thompson said, final legislation stood little chance in this year’s Legislature, and would likely miss the 2010 agenda. Even-numbered years feature 30-day legislative sessions restricted to budgetary issues.

Ortega still wanted agreement.

“If we are bringing a bill to the committee, it should be one we have consensus with,” Ortega said. “I’m not confident taking it in and saying, ‘We’ll work the kinks out (later).’”

Thompson said a bill without consensus wouldn’t pass, and disagreement on Tuesday would be an “unnecessary revelation” to the interim board.

He offered to bring forth Portales’ version of draft legislation on Tuesday, which met approval from Ortega and the rest of the authority. Thompson said the interim committee wouldn’t spend too much time on draft details.

Regarding Congressional approval, consultant John Ryan said there would be no action this year on an omnibus bill from Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M, that includes the Ute Water Project. The project would pump water from the Ute Reservoir in Quay County to authority entities, with federal, state and local governments splitting the $432 million cost.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said he wants to wait until the next Congress because he’ll have more votes to pass legislation. Democrats have gained seven Senate seats with two more seats to be decided.

Ryan said there is also a need to inform New Mexico’s three new representatives — Democrats Ben Lujan, Martin Heinrich and Harry Teague — about the project.