Officials want to raise minimum water level for Ute

Jack King

Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority board members voted Wednesday to recommend raising the minimum water level to which Ute Lake will be allowed to fall.
Officials said raising the level — called the “minimum pool level” — will give additional protection to recreation and tourism in Ute Lake, but will slightly reduce the authority’s ability to deliver full allotments of water regularly to towns in the Ute Water Project.
The board voted unanimously to send a letter recommending the change to the Ute Water Commission, which oversees the contract with the state Interstate Stream Commission for a 24,000-acre-foot water allotment.
Commission Chairman Darryl Bostwick said he will try to call a commission meeting to discuss the letter before the ENMRWA’s next meeting. If approved, the minimum pool request would then be forwarded to the state Interstate Stream Commission.
The lake’s current minimum pool level is 3,741 feet deep. The board voted to raise the level to 3,765 feet. According to an ISC study, raising the level to 3,765 would mean project administrators would be able to deliver the full allotment of project water — 24,000 acre feet — 93.3 percent of the time, said ISC representative Doug Murray.
That percentage is equivalent to not delivering the full allotment 3.4 years out of 50 years, he added.
The Ute Water Commission previously requested that the ISC set Ute Lake’s minimum pool level at 3,765 in September 2002, but the ISC was completing a sediment study of the lake and did not approve the request at that time. The study has since been completed, Bostwick said.
Larry Wallin, the village of Logan’s representative on the ENMRWA board, called recreation and tourism on Ute Lake “the lifeblood of Logan.”
Wallin, who has regularly lobbied for the change, said the new level protects Logan’s future without significantly harming other communities’ chances to use surface water from Ute Lake. Some communities will not always use their full water allotment, he said.
“If we start conservation measures two to three years before we start getting water from the project, we could get (needed water) 98 percent of the time,” he said.
Portales Mayor Orlando Ortega said, in discussions last week, he and Clovis Mayor David Lansford promised Wallin they would support his effort so long as full delivery could be maintained at least 90 percent of the time.
But, Bureau of Reclamation representative Miguel Rocha warned the commission that the 50-year history of Canadian River water levels on which the ISC study based its predictions may not accurately predict future levels.
“When you’re working with hydrology, past performance doesn’t necessarily indicate future results,” he said.
In other business, the board voted to purchase their 24,000-acre-foot allotment of Ute Lake water under a contract that requires them to pay the ISC an ascending rate, beginning at $5 an acre foot for water and $1 for operation and maintenance in 2004. The authority has maintained an option to buy the water since 1997 by paying the ISC $1.50 an acre foot.
Lee Tillman, executive director of the Eastern Mexico Council of Governments, told the commission Guadalupe County has moved from the Northeastern New Mexico water planning region to the Mora-San Miguel planning region. Because the Northestern New Mexico planning region now has five counties instead of six, Tillman recommended the region completely restart its water planning process.
Tillman has been working on a regional water plan, but Bostwick, a COG board member, said that board will meet to discuss issuing a request for proposals for a consultant to complete the proposed new plan. A meeting date has not been set.
Executive Director Scott Verhines said a Ricin scare in federal Congressional offices set back work on the project’s authorization legislation by a month. A draft of the authorization is expected in March, he said.
Verhines said a meeting of the state Water Trust Board to consider giving the project $2 million is scheduled for March 3.
Nicolas Medley, an ISC biologist, said a fish survey of the Canadian River below Ute Reservoir, including surveys of the endangered Arkansas River shiner, found fish populations are healthy and, if the project does not change the river’s hydrology, there is “reasonable assurance” it will remain healthy.
The survey will provide baseline information for an upcoming National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) study of the project, he said.