Authorization for Ute Water Project passes Senate

CNJ staff

The Ute Water Project is halfway to Barack Obama’s desk.

By a 73-21 vote, Senate Bill 22 passed Thursday afternoon, and similar legislation will head to the House of Representatives.

The bill is expected to be in the House for a week or two before it lands on the desk of the president-elect.

More commonly referred to as the Bingaman lands bill, Senate Bill 22 includes authorization for the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority and about 160 others.

Bingaman, the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said he has not discussed the Ute Water Project or any other part of the omnibus package with Obama, but, “The soon-to-be secretary of the interior, (Colo. Sen.) Ken Salazar … who has the office right next to me, we’ve talked about some of these projects,” Bingaman said. “He’s aware of them, and I’m confident we could get support from the administration.”

The bill allows the Bureau of Reclamation to spend up to $327 million to assist the authority to build the pipeline project.

Bingaman said the earliest appropriations could come in the budget cycle for the next fiscal year, which begins in October. He doesn’t know when construction can start, but is optimistic.

“I think this project is further along, as far as design and engineering work, than a lot of people realize,” Bingaman said. “We’re to a point in the project where the lion’s share of anything done will relate to construction.”

Separate legislation would be required for financial appropriations, but some funds could come from Obama’s stimulus plan.

“It depends on how shovel-ready these projects are,” Bingaman said. “Clearly, we can make an argument some of these projects should be included in the funding for the stimulus package.”

Clovis Mayor and authority chair Gayla Brumfield estimated the stimulus will exceed $1 billion and will include a focus on water projects after meetings in Washington, D.C. earlier this week.

Brumfield said an estimated $22 million intake project at the reservoir isn’t quite shovel-ready, but the design can be finished so intake construction could start within six months with stimulus funds. With that work started, Brumfield said it would be easier to get appropriations on an annual basis.

“My opinion is, because of the stimulus,” Brumfield said, “I think it’s going to go a little faster than what we were first thinking.”

When completed, water from the Ute Reservoir in Quay County will be piped to the authority’s entities — currently Clovis, Portales, Texico, Grady, Elida, Melrose, and Curry and Roosevelt Counties.

The project would be funded 75 percent federally, 15 percent by the state and 10 percent by authority members. The projected cost of the Ute pipeline is $432 million and would take 10 to 12 years to complete.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., a former representative, introduced similar legislation in the House of Representatives at the end of last year’s session. The measure passed, but never got out of the Senate.

“With the Senate’s passage of the Ute Pipeline legislation, the goal of so many eastern New Mexico community leaders is closer to being realized,” said Udall. “ I hope the House will now move swiftly to help ensure that eastern New Mexico continues to have the resources it needs for a vibrant and secure future.”