Officials to break ground on Ute water project

Kevin Wilson

Nearly half a century after the idea was conceived, eastern New Mexico entities have planned a Thursday groundbreaking on the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water System — also known as the Ute Water Project.

An 11:30 a.m. groundbreaking is set for Ute Reservoir, on N.M. 522 about two-and-a-half miles west of Tucumcari. Many city, state and federal officials will be on hand, including Sen. Jeff Bingmana, D-N.M., who authored the 2009 omnibus bill that contained federal authorization for the pipeline project.

Construction will follow at a later date for an $11.5 million intake structure, or pumping station. It is the first phase of the $432 million Ute Water Project, which would pump water from the Ute Reservoir to members of the Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority. Those members are Clovis, Portales, Melrose, Grady, Texico, Elida and Curry and Roosevelt counties. Authority officials hope to start water delivery in 2019.

Projected water delivery is 16,450 acre feet, approximately 5.36 billion gallons, of water annually. A 1994 study by the Interstate Stream Commission estimated the reservoir’s annual yield to be 24,000 acre-feet per year in all but extreme drought years.

The groundbreaking follows decades of organizations that came and went, and studies about the groundwater needs of members. An act first authorizing a dam on the Canadian River was approved by the New Mexico Legislature in 1959, and a water supply project was first conceived four years later with the 17-member Eastern New Mexico Inter-Community Water Supply Association.

The Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority (ENMRWA) was formed in 2001, of UWC members in Curry and Roosevelt Counties, for the purposes of planning, financing, Ute water acquisition and operation of the ENMRWS. Quay County entities joined in 2003, but later dropped out.

A group of Quay County residents, business owners and public officials are organizing a protest against the start of the first phase. They contend construction of the project should start in Curry County. Logan Village Attorney Warren Frost said the authority would be “basically building a $11 million hole in the ground,” and others fear a loss of water will jeopardize recreational and economic value at Ute Lake.

Authority Chair and Clovis Mayor Gayla Brumfield said she understands concerns, but said the construction phase will help in securing federal money and water levels at the lake have always been part of the equation.

“A level has been set to limit the amount of water the authority can pump each year,” Brumfield said. “The fact is providing water for our area is reason that lake was built in the first place.”

Federal legislation was approved in 2009 that authorizes the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to spend up to $327 million to assist the Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority in the construction of the pipeline. Funding must come through separate appropriations. The cost share is 75 percent federal, 15 percent state and 10 percent authority members.