Ute Water Project reaches delay

Some delays are inevitable for the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water
Authority, such as in Washington, D.C. Some delays it would like to
avoid, such as in Santa Fe.

Authority members found out an omnibus bill that included
authorization for the Ute Water Project will not be introduced in a
lame duck session for the 110th Congress, and will be punted to the
111th Congress in January.

Regarding Santa Fe, Joe Thompson, a consultant for the state side of
authorization of the project, told authority members Thursday he wanted
to address the state Legislature’s Interim Water Committee on Tuesday
in preparation for the upcoming Legislature.

Thompson would pitch draft legislation to restructure the authority
as an official water authority — the current body operates more as a
joint powers agreement, and authority status would help acquire better
bonding rates.

Portales Mayor and authority Vice Chair Orlando Ortega was opposed
to bringing the current draft legislation forward because it gives the
water authority ultimate control over the city’s water system. He said
his city would make its opposition known to the committee.

“The city of Portales wants the legislation to include language that
protects the integrity of our system so Portales can continue to own,
operate and expand our water system without any threat of condemnation
or eminent domain,” Ortega said in a prepared statement following the
meeting. “Currently, the draft legislation allows the authority to
plan, develop, purchase, acquire, own, operate, establish and construct
the rural water pipeline within and without the boundary of the
authority for water systems and for wastewater systems. That’s our
greatest opposition.”

Unlike other entities in the authority, Portales owns its water
system. Portales City Manager Debi Lee said she and Ortega don’t think
the authority intends to take control of Portales’ water systems, but
they don’t want to risk legislation that would provide such an
opportunity.

Thompson responded the differences could be addressed after bringing
the draft legislation forward, and addressing the interim committee
would not bind them to bring forward that legislation, or any
legislation, to the 2009 Legislature.

If draft legislation didn’t reach the interim committee, Thompson
said, final legislation stood little chance in this year’s Legislature,
and would likely miss the 2010 agenda. Even-numbered years feature
30-day legislative sessions restricted to budgetary issues.

Ortega still wanted agreement.

“If we are bringing a bill to the committee, it should be one we
have consensus with,” Ortega said. “I’m not confident taking it in and
saying, ‘We’ll work the kinks out (later).’”

Thompson said a bill without consensus wouldn’t pass, and
disagreement on Tuesday would be an “unnecessary revelation” to the
interim board.

He offered to bring forth Portales’ version of draft legislation on
Tuesday, which met approval from Ortega and the rest of the authority.
Thompson said the interim committee wouldn’t spend too much time on
draft details.

Regarding Congressional approval, consultant John Ryan said there
would be no action this year on an omnibus bill from Sen. Jeff
Bingaman, D-N.M, that includes the Ute Water Project. The project would
pump water from the Ute Reservoir in Quay County to authority entities,
with federal, state and local governments splitting the $432 million
cost.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said he wants to wait
until the next Congress because he’ll have more votes to pass
legislation. Democrats have gained seven Senate seats with two more
seats to be decided.

Ryan said there is also a need to inform New Mexico’s three new
representatives — Democrats Ben Lujan, Martin Heinrich and Harry Teague
— about the project.