Ute Water Project price skyrockets over last three months

By Kevin Wilson: Freedom Newspapers

Like a summer traveler cringing at $3 a gallon for unleaded gasoline, the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority is feeling pain at the pump.

Fueled by higher energy and construction costs as a fallout from Hurricane Katrina and numerous other factors, the Ute Water Project’s price tag has shot up nearly $50 million in three months between cost estimates from Albuquerque consulting company CH2M HILL.
If construction started today on the Ute Water Project, a proposed water distribution pipeline from Ute Lake to Elida, CH2M HILL projects a cost of $436.1 million — a 13 percent jump from its April estimate of $384 million.

The new cost estimate was announced during Wednesday’s authority meeting in Portales.

Project Manager Scott Verhines noted that seven years ago, the project cost was roughly $220 million, and added that the cost will only become more imposing in the future.

“Time has always been our biggest factor on this project,” Verhines said.

“It’s the biggest cost factor in anything we do.”

Members of ENMRWA are concerned the rising costs will shrink the window of opportunity for the project. Clovis Mayor David Lansford, who chairs the authority, is concerned that all of cooperation from the authority’s cities and counties will be wasted if New Mexico’s congressional delegates aren’t completely on board.

“The success of this project depends on the federal piece more than any other piece,” Lansford said. “If they don’t have the same drive to move forward … they need to be honest with us so we can work on an alternative.”

The project calls for 80 percent funding through the federal government, 10 percent through the state government and 10 percent through the communities involved.

Verhines said Congress will be on recess in the next few months, and he is working with the state delegates to see when a good time would be to get all parties together to discuss water issues.

Walter Hines, a senior engineer with CH2M HILL, said a good way to get Washington serious about the project is to show the state is serious. Hines said with large amounts of oil and gas reserve money in the 2007 Legislature and Bill Richardson declaring this “the year of water,” he didn’t think it would be out of bounds to request $100 million from the state next year to help fund the project.

Also during Wednesday’s meeting:
• Members approved three documents relating to grant money from the 2005 Legislature. One document was a grant agreement for $1 million between ENMRWA, the New Mexico Water Trust and the New Mexico Finance Authority to be used for storage and transfer of water related to the project. The other two documents were a resolution of approval and a certification that no litigation would affect the grant agreement.

• Verhines told members copies of the regional water plan draft are available at public places for public review over the next two months. Portales City Manager Debi Lee said Portales City Council passed a resolution in support of the draft, mainly to inform the public that the plan is available for review at City Hall and Portales Public Library.
Verhines said the plan was also available online, with a link at the authority Web site (www.enmrwa.com).

• During an update on Cannon Air Force Base, Lansford told members about a public meeting scheduled for Aug. 19 at Clovis City Hall with two representatives from the Office of Economic Adjustment, a division of the Department of Defense created to help military communities adjust to base closures or expansions.

Lansford said for the arrival of the Air Force Special Operations Command, he would like to see creation of a local adjustment group led by civilians but accountable to local government and the public.

• The board scheduled the next meeting for 3 p.m. Sept. 13 in Melrose.