Groundbreaking marks step beyond discussion for Ute pipeline

Kevin Wilson

Thursday’s groundbreaking marks another step for an effort to building a pipeline from Ute Reservoir — a step outside.

Discussed, and shelved, and discussed again for decades in public meetings and congressional offices, the pipeline project makes a partial move from a discussed project to one putting in groundwork.

“I remember that forever, it seems like, it was being talked about,” said Clovis Mayor and Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority Chair Gayla Brumfield, who considered the project just as a discussion point when she was a private citizen, and even as a city commissioner.

“I understood what it meant, that it was a sustainable water supply for our area. But it wasn’t until I was elected mayor that I found out how critical it is.”

The 11:30 a.m. ceremony marks the intent, a few months down the road, to start construction on an $11.5 million intake structure, or pumping station. When built, the intake structure will be the first phase of the $432 million pipeline project to send water from the Ute Reservoir to authority members in the Clovis and Portales area.

Project Manager Scott Verhines said Thursday’s event is ceremonial, scheduled around a congressional recess. But even this event is a far cry from when he first joined the team a dozen years ago.

“I think what really came up in 1999 was that the project had been studied for a lot of years prior to our involvement,” Verhines said. “It had languished, but the problem wouldn’t go away.”

It was around then that David Lansford, then Clovis’ mayor, helped kickstart the process again. The city had attempted to recruit a large industrial company, but it pulled out after it didn’t like the area’s water future — tied to a dwindling High Plains Aquifer.

The process has had its ups and downs:

• Thursday also includes a planned protest from Quay County residents, officials and business owners.

The protest stems from concerns the authority will drain the lake, which is tied into local economies.

Brumfield said the authority understands the position of local residents concerned about economic development from Ute Lake, but notes there are set limits on withdrawing water and that the reservoir was created for the purposes of the pipeline project.

Protesters have suggested infrastructure could be built first in Curry County, where the majority of the pipeline will be.

Logan Village Attorney Warren Frost charged the authority would be putting an “$11 million hole in the ground,” a contention Verhines said was a loaded accusation.

“Our position has always been that this is a multi-year, multi-phase project from its very nature,” Verhines said. “We’re going to build from the reservoir southward.

Everybody involved recognizes we’ve got to do it in pieces. The reason we’ve moved the intake structure ahead is that it has the ability to have some utility for the entities nearby that have reserved water.”

• In another conflict, Verhines said the authority originally operated as the Ute Reservoir Commission, but had to regroup as the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority when a lawsuit contended the commission lacked the power to create and maintain the pipeline project.

The current authority was converted to a utility authority last year through an act of the Legislature.

• Meetings sometimes included Lansford openly expressing frustration about working months to get a 15-minute meeting with a congressional aide that went nowhere.

But Lansford — who did not respond to messages for comment on this story — also was a key witness during testimony at a 2007 water field hearing conducted in Clovis with members of the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The following year, Brumfield was elected mayor, and took the chair position with the authority.

“I think the biggest challenge was that people heard about, but they never believed it was going to happen because it’s been talked about so long,” Brumfield said. “That honestly has been a real battle. I’ve seen it since I was elected. My message has never wavered. We need it, we have to have it, we’re going to get it.”

Funding is the key, as the project was federally authorized in 2009. Brumfield thinks the current push toward federal austerity will be followed by a push toward infrastructure projects.

But despite the obstacles, Verhines said Thursday still has meaning.

“The big obstacle right now is that we have a federal authorization and with the economy the way it is, everyone’s conscious of the fickle funding support,” he said. “We are all confident the funding is going to come; it’s not as timely as we would like it.

“Conservatively, we’ve had 150 meetings open to the public in that 12 years, and we’re finally in a place where we can point to something.”