Pipeline could extend shrinking water supply

By David Irvin: CNJ staff writer

The Ogallala Aquifer, which provides much of the water to Curry County and other parts of eastern New Mexico, may never be replenished. That was the ominous message delivered to city officials at Thursday’s city commission meeting.

Pumping rates have exceeded replenishment rates by such a wide margin over the years that engineers now say the only viable water strategy is to conserve as much as possible, build the Ute Reservoir pipeline project, and thereby extend the life of ground water as long as possible.

The approximately $300 million pipeline project would be the combined effort of nine different communities and three counties in eastern New Mexico, using federal state and local funds to pump water from the Ute reservoir throughout the area.

In a presentation to the commission, Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority project managers Scott Verhines and Walter Hines discussed the status of the project and the importance of establishing a long-term, sustainable water source.

“One of the long term strategies for your community should be to combine surface water from Ute Reservoir with a conservation strategy,” Verhines said.

He presented data from the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer to make his case. In 2000, about 260,000 acre feet of water were pumped from the aquifer, but it was only replenished by 41,000 acre feet of water — with one acre foot equaling 326,000 gallons.

At current rates of depletion — in Clovis about 1.8 feet per year — eastern New Mexico’s groundwater will begin drying up over the next 20 to 30 years, Verhines said.

“Other than Ute, there doesn’t seem to be any other possible fresh water source available in the area,” Hines said. Ute reservoir was originally constructed for this purpose, he said, but has been underutilized over the years.

The $300 million needed to complete the project would be funded through an 80-10-10 model. In other words, federal government would bear the largest burden (about $236 million), and local entities and the state would pay about $30 million each.

Mayor David Lansford was optimistic about the progress of the project.

“It’s likely we’ll have enough funds in place to be prepared to break ground in approximately three years,” Lansford said.
He added that the federal funds would be doled out over a number of years as the project went forward.

The project managers went on to talk about a deeper source of brackish water lying below the Ogallala Aquifer. That source, however, would require much more money to pump and treat. They called that a long-term solution to the problem, which may be more than 50 years away.

Interesting facts about the pipeline project:
• Original feasibility study for project was to be completed in 1964

• Population served: 75,000

• Project cost: $296 million in today’s dollars

• 1,000 feet elevation difference between reservoir level and top of Caprock