Portales officials wary of proposed water authority legislation

By Kevin Wilson: CNJ staff writer

Orlando Ortega remembers his early days on the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority, when he felt entities in Quay County were holding back production of the Ute Water Project.

Now, it’s years since those entities left, and the pipeline project has been approved by Congress and President Obama, and Ortega doesn’t want himself or the Portales community he serves as mayor to be seen as a roadblock.

The sticking point, Ortega said, is language in the authority’s attempt to draft legislation that would move it into true authority status, and not as the joint powers agreement under which it currently operations.

“Our community wants to keep its independence,” Ortega said at Wednesday’s meeting at Clovis-Carver Public Library. “We need the water just as much as you do. I don’t know what the answer is … but we feel very uncomfortable with the structure and the language.”

Ortega and Portales City Manager Debi Lee have made the community’s opposition known on draft legislation introduced, but not acted on, in the 2009 Legislature. The measure, Ortega said, would allow the authority to take over city water decisions, a power well beyond the scope of the Ute Water Project, which would deliver water from the Ute Reservoir in Quay County to authority members.

“Portales is different from other entities,” Lee said. “Controlling rates and maintaining complete control of our water system is of utmost importance.”

Joe Thompson, a former state representative and a state advocate for the authority, said the legislation has been rewritten to reflect that the authority would control water systems only if smaller communities didn’t want the burden.

“We made it explicit that it would be permissible,” Thompson said, “but it could not be forced upon (any entity).”

Other members said it was a point that needed to be resolved, as entering authority status could lead to better bond rates in financing the $432 million project, which calls for 10 percent local, 15 percent funding and 75 percent federal funding.

“As much as you need to be in this project, we need you in it,” Thompson told Ortega. “If it’s not this vehicle, it’s got to be another vehicle.”

Ortega said he would work with his city councilors on possible solutions. One idea he pitched was for Portales to sit out of the authority agreement, but continue to fulfill financial obligations on construction and reserved water costs.

Financing could come as early as October for the project, which is now in the appropriation process.

But Project Manager Scott Verhines said he is hopeful work on an intake structure at the reservoir could take place in the next six months through dollars from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, more commonly known as the stimulus bill.

In other business at the meeting:

• State Rep. Anna Crook, R-Clovis, and Sen. Clint Harden, R-Clovis, offered words of congratulations for the project’s March 30 authorization.

“We all believe it’s central to our economic health,” Harden said. “We’re closer, and moving dirt in some cases.

“I look forward to being able to continue to do my part in the Legislature as we work with appropriations, or whatever the work may be.”

• Authority members said it was welcome news that Las Cruces native Mike Connor was nominated by President Barack Obama to head the Bureau of Reclamation, which is authorized to spend up to $327 million to assist the authority in building the Ute Water Pipeline.

“This is really, really good,” Authority Chair Gayla Brumfield said. “You can tell he has a passion for this project. He gets it and he’s the one who can help move this project along.”