Gaining approval for Ute water project not easy task

By Kevin Wilson: Freedom Newspapers

Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority members expect an uphill battle in their latest attempt to gain federal approval on the Ute Water Project.

Sens. Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman introduced a bill two weeks ago authorizing the Bureau of Reclamation to provide financial assistance to the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority for the planning, design and construction of a water pipeline from the Ute Reservoir to communities in eastern New Mexico.

“Moving this bill through Congress and fulfilling it will be an uphill task, a fact that the leadership in Clovis and Portales understand,” said Domenici, R-N.M., in a release. “But the issue of water availability is one that is not going away, and we should take steps now to ensure that communities have a water supply commensurate with their needs.”

The federal government would be accountable for 75 percent of the funding, which totals about $372 million, and funding would be given through annual appropriations from Congress.

Clovis Mayor David Lansford, who chairs the water authority, said the biggest fight will likely be keeping Congress at a commitment of 75 percent. He doesn’t think it will be difficult to argue the project’s necessity.

“Clearly, we’ve demonstrated the project is needed,” Lansford said, “and it represents the best alternative of all alternatives considered.”

During recent water authority meetings, members have seen a list of alternatives to solve eastern New Mexico water problems and found that even with a spike from construction costs the pipeline project is less expensive than others.

During its last meeting, the authority received a cost estimate of $436.1 million for the project. With the price rising, Portales Mayor and water authority Vice Chairman Orlando Ortega felt a “now or never” approach should be taken.

“It’s now,” Ortega said. “We need this bill authorized and appropriated as soon as possible. The longer we wait, the higher the price tag goes.”

A similar bill was originally introduced by Bingaman, D-N.M., in 2004, but it did not get out of committee. Ortega said a key to changing local fortunes includes the sponsorship of Domenici, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“The construction of this pipeline will provide Curry and Roosevelt counties with a long-term renewable source of water that will help them remain vibrant for years to come,” said Bingaman, who is a ranking member on the committee. “I look forward to hearings … as a first step toward building support for this important legislation.”

Should legislation be approved, Ortega said the next step would be to pursue legislation for the appropriation of funds. Many other steps exist, Ortega said, but authorization and appropriation are the two steps that control the destiny of the project.

The bill will not be considered until Congress returns from recess in mid-November.