Area mayors defend water project

A swimmer cliff-dives off the rocks at Ute Lake near Logan. Area water troubles could be lessened by a pipeline to Ute lake, water officials say. CNJ file photo.

By Jack King

The mayors of Clovis, Portales and Tucumcari faced tough questioning from state Water Trust Board members when they went before the board in Santa Fe on Monday to request money for the Ute Water Project, said Clovis Mayor David Lansford.
Lansford, Portales Mayor Orlando Ortega and Tucumcari Mayor Calvin Litchfield, representing the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority, were the first project representatives to go before the board Monday. The board questioned the representatives of 26 water projects from around the state during the meeting, Lansford said.
Lansford said that although the Water Trust Board has earmarked $2 million for the Ute Water Project, it has not yet formally released that money. The ENMRWA needs about $1.8 million from the state to help it cover the costs of environmental assessment and preliminary design, as well as buying easements, rights of way and other property over the next three years, he said.
The total final cost of the pipeline project is estimated to be between $200 and $250 million, with the state’s cost set at between $22 and $24 million over 10 years, he said.
The board members questioned the ENMRWA representatives for about an hour. Most of the questions were about local communities’ ability and willingness to pay their share of the project, including a question about the costs versus the benefits of the project, he said.
“About 75,000 people will benefit from the pipeline. The question was, ‘Is it worth $22 to $24 million over the next 10 years to the state?’” Lansford said.
“I think it’s fair to say these communities are looking for a solution to the water problem for their economic health. Unless we can assure these communities have an indefinite water supply, they are at the mercy of the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer,” he said.
“It has to be realized that the state already has invested $125 million in the project since it built the dam at Ute Lake in 1958,” he added.
Scott Verhines, program manager for the ENRWA, said the board also asked the ENMRWA representatives about alternatives to the Ute Water Project for long-term water supply in eastern New Mexico.
“I think we can say there are few or no alternatives,” he added.
He said one concern facing the Water Trust Board is the sheer number of water projects around the state that are asking them for money this year.
“We emphasized that we are not asking them for the entire state share of the project in year one,” he said.
The water board’s next meeting is on Dec. 3, when it may announce which of the 26 water projects it will fund this year, Verhines said.
Lansford said ENMRWA representatives plan to go to Washington, D.C., in December to lobby for federal authorization of the project, which could mean federal money would pay 80 percent of its cost, and to ask for $5 million in federal money to help fund start up costs.