Water pipeline needs support from others

By Sen. Jeff Bingaman: Guest Columnist

An affordable supply of good quality water is critical to sustaining future economic opportunities, not to mention our state’s culture and way of life.  Drought, population increases, and depleting aquifers make water management one of the most difficult and important issues facing New Mexicans.
Nowhere is this more evident than in eastern New Mexico. A once-abundant supply of groundwater fueled the development of communities on the eastern plains. Yet concerns have steadily grown that the area’s heavy reliance on groundwater, particularly for municipal and industrial uses, is not sustainable.  Both the Ogallala and Entrada aquifers are deteriorating in quality and quantity. 
Fortunately, eastern New Mexico communities anticipated the situation and have been working on a solution: the construction of a pipeline to deliver water from the Ute Reservoir to nine communities in Quay, Roosevelt, and Curry counties.
The water will come from the Ute Reservoir, which was built on the Canadian River in 1959 as a sustainable water supply for eastern New Mexico. For the past several years, I supported federal funding to study the feasibility of constructing such a pipeline and for preliminary design plans.
The result of the analysis is a project designed to deliver approximately 24,000 acre feet of water annually from Ute Reservoir to Logan, San Jon, Tucumcari, Grady, Clovis, Melrose, Texico, Portales, Elida and Cannon Air Force Base. This system would make use of the renewable water supply in Ute Reservoir to which these communities presently have a right — a major advantage compared with other water supply alternatives. 
The estimated cost to construct the project is $306 million, with annual operating costs of $12 million-$14 million. 
After working with the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority to craft legislation, I introduced the “Eastern New Mexico Rural Water System Act of 2004” committing the federal government to paying up to 80 percent — a total of $250 million — of the project’s construction cost. The remaining 20 percent of the cost, as well as operating expenses, would be covered by the eastern New Mexico communities the pipeline would serve, with assistance from the State Water Trust Fund.
Once the participating communities finalize their plans on how to pay the project’s annual operating costs, it is my hope to move the legislation forward. 
To begin building support in Congress for this legislation, I requested a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing. The hearing, held in June, featured New Mexico State Engineer John D’Antonio and Clovis Mayor David Lansford, both of whom testified that the Ute pipeline project is key to eastern New Mexico’s future.
At the same hearing, the Bush administration regrettably announced it does not support the bill, saying, among other things, that it does not approve of the 80 percent federal-20 percent local split. It believes the local communities should pay a larger share.
While I am disappointed about the administration’s current position, it is important to proceed at this point to gain the support of both chambers of Congress. In seeking support from my Senate colleagues, I will point out that since 2000 Congress approved three rural water projects for South Dakota and Montana, with a federal cost-share of up to 80 percent. 
I’ll let them know that if the 80 percent-20 percent arrangement is appropriate for South Dakota and Montana, it’s appropriate for New Mexico. 
There is much work left to do before the Senate bill can be enacted, but I look forward to continuing to work with eastern New Mexico communities to satisfy their long-term water demands in a manner that they think makes sense. Through this alliance, I hope we can set the stage for protecting the region’s economic base and providing the foundation for its future vitality.

Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., is a United States senator. Contact him at 202-224-1792 or by e-mail:
senator_bingaman@bingaman.senate.gov