Portales opposes water authority bill

By Sarah Meyer: PNT Staff Writer

The Portales City Council voted during an emergency meeting Saturday to oppose a draft version of a state legislative bill that would create a water authority for eastern New Mexico.

The vote passed 7-0 with Councilor Shawn Watson absent.

The draft was discussed at Thursday’s meeting of the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority, which currently operates more as a joint powers agreement with the goal of creating the Ute Water Project.

City officials say the bill, as drafted, would give control of all water and wastewater systems to the new authority.

Mayor Orlando Ortega Jr. expressed his concerns during the ENMRWA meeting and brought the issue to the council Saturday.

“I feel that this bill … can greatly jeopardize our community’s water supply and wastewater system,” Ortega said. “It would basically take control away from us.”

Councilor Mike Miller expressed his opposition to the proposed bill. He said there is no apparent need for getting the bill passed in a hurry.

“This benefits us in no way,” he said. “If we allow this to happen, we relinquish our duties as council people.”

He presented figures regarding the project, which he said he obtained from Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales.

The documents, faxed from the Legislative Council, show more than $12 million in state money has been appropriated to the Ute Water Project and $4 million has been spent. Another $3 million in grant money has been spent on an environmental study and on project management and engineering services.

“We’re spending a lot of money and what do we have to show for it?” Miller asked. “I think this bill obligates us to more money for something that’s pie in the sky.”

Ortega said the proposed bill would allow the authority to borrow money against the city, even without federal appropriations.

City officials had been given the opportunity to revise the draft bill leading up to a state legislative Interim Water Committee meeting Tuesday. But they didn’t think that was enough time.

“We have a lot to lose; other communities have a lot to gain,” said City Manager Debi Lee. “I don’t think we can revise it.”

Councilor Robert de los Santos said the bill would not be good for the community.

“I don’t see putting us at risk for something we already own,” he said.

Miller said he felt the bill’s intention was “to back us into a corner.”

But he said the city has been exploring other possible water sources and could consider getting out of the authority and the Ute Water Project.

Councilor Dianne Parker said she felt it important for the city to maintain control over its water and wastewater systems.

She too was concerned about the pressure to get the bill passed quickly.

Councilor Ron Jackson also disliked the rush.

“I think they’re positioning themselves to move forward without federal appropriations,” he said.

Ute Water Project

The Ute Water Project would deliver water via pipeline from Ute Lake in Quay County to several communities in Curry and Roosevelt counties. The project is being considered because of declining water levels in the Ogallala Aquifer, from which the area gets its water supplies. Here is some history of the project:

• First conceived in 1963.

• Studied from 1964 to 1998.

• Ute Water Commission organized in 1987 to contract with the Interstate Stream Commission for purchase, aquisition and distribution of water from Ute Lake.

• ISC and UWC entered into agreement in 1997 for sale and purchase of 24,000 acre feet of water annually from Ute Lake.

• The project originally included 17 member communities. The eight current Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority members are Curry and Roosevelt counties, Clovis, Portales, Elida, Grady, Melrose and Texico.

• Estimated cost of the project is $432 million. Anticipated funding is 75 percent federal, 15 percent state and 10 percent local government.

Source: Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority, www.enmrwa.com