Officials ready to proceed with project

By Kevin Wilson: Freedom Newspapers

Local, state and federal leaders reached a similar conclusion at Tuesday’s water field hearing in Clovis: They’re ready to seek federal authorization of the Ute Water Project, with or without the Bureau of Reclamation.

Sens. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Pete Domenici, R-N.M., were generally supportive of local testimony in favor of a project that would pipe water for domestic use from the Ute Reservoir in Quay County to eight eastern New Mexico entities.

While water is plentiful now, the area’s primary water source, the Ogallala Aquifer, will run out of sustainable water in the next 25 to 40 years, according to the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority’s Web site.

Bingaman is the chairman of the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, while Domenici is the senior member. The hearing was organized so Bingaman could have proper information before going forward with a bill to federally authorize the project.

The senators, Domenici in particular, had disagreements with the Bureau of Reclamation during the testimony at Clovis-Carver Public Library. At issue was whether the Bureau of Reclamation supported the project, and what legal hurdles it had to clear.

David Sabo, assistant regional director for the bureau’s Upper Colorado Region, said the bureau had to follow the Rural Water Supply Act of 2006, which authorizes the secretary of the interior to carry out a rural water supply program and oversee rural water projects.

The stumbling block, Sabo said, is that the authority needs a feasibility study, or a 30-percent design, on the project before it can give its approval. The project currently has a 10-percent design.

“Our belief is this is a very good project,” Sabo said. “Before we can take a stance in favor of this project, we have to comply with the
Rural Water Supply Act of 2006 and have the feasibility study completed.”

Others who gave testimony thought the bureau was simply moving the finish line. David Lansford, Clovis mayor and chairman of the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority that governs the Ute project, doubted the 10 projects the bureau oversees needed the same threshold before approval.

Portales Mayor and authority vice chair Orlando Ortega agreed.

“There is a little frustration in our communities that we have continued to study this thing to death and have done design after design,” Ortega said, mentioning fears the threshold would be moved to 50-percent designs and so forth. “As we do those things to meet their satisfaction, the price continues to escalate. The time is now.”

Domenici was more upfront in his assessment.

“I don’t have a great deal of faith in the Bureau of Reclamation,” Domenici said. “I don’t have it now, I didn’t have it last week, I didn’t have it last year.”

Bingaman asked Sabo to provide information about the 10 projects the bureau is currently overseeing, and if they had a 30-percent design before they were approved.

One of the project’s biggest obstacles is its $432 million price tag. Proposed authorization would call for a share of 75 percent federal, 15 percent state and 10 percent local. The entities of the authority would be responsible for all maintenance costs as well.

“Our studies indicate it’s more expensive (to buy water rights), and it would still end up with (a depleting water source),” Lansford said.

“I don’t feel this project represents any waste in tax dollars.”