Proposed water authority draws ire from city officials

By Eric Butler: PNT staff writer

Portales’ City Council invited members of the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority to a workshop meeting on Tuesday. At issue was a proposed bill introduced at the last New Mexico Legislature, one that would create a separate utility authority in charge of distributing water from Ute Lake to eastern New Mexico communities and rural inhabitants.

At the end of an hour-long discussion, it was agreed the issues would be addressed again at the next ENMRWA meeting set for May 28 in Melrose.

“We invited all the authority members here and their alternates in hopes that we could share some dialogue and express our concerns,” Portales Mayor Orlando Ortega said. “I think everything went well.”

Ortega and Portales City Manager Debi Lee criticized the legislation introduced by Rep. Anna Crook, R-Clovis, as complicating the original intent of the ENMRWA. Among what Ortega said were numerous problems with the bill were clauses that would give the new authority, proposed as the “Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority,” rights to create wastewater systems and to borrow money on the Ute Lake water pipeline through bonds.

“The thing is, we don’t agree with this legislation,” Ortega told ENMRWA representatives. “We want to be part of the pipeline, but we don’t want to be part of this legislation.”

Eight city or county entities in Curry and Roosevelt counties, including the cities of Clovis and Portales, helped to create the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority. Its primary mission, to extract water from Ute Lake near Logan and have it delivered by means of a pipeline, took a big step forward when Congress authorized a bill that would enable the federal government to shoulder 75 percent of the proposed cost of an estimated $430 million.

Darrel Bostwick of Melrose called the ENMRWA a “loose organization” and said a state government entity would have to be created as a means of receiving appropriated funds.

“They’ve got to appropriate it to somebody and it’s got to be a government entity,” said Curry County Commissioner Caleb Chandler.

But Ortega complained that the city of Portales would lose essential control over its own water distribution if the new authority were created.

“We can’t put our utility system into an authority where our city officials can’t control the rates,” Ortega said. “That means the authority can hold liens on anybody – that’s how I interpret it. That means the city can no longer deal with the customer on a city-customer basis.’

Bostwick and Chandler, at the end of the meeting, said they felt reassured that Portales would continue to be part of the original compact if the objectionable parts of the proposed bill were addressed.

“You can’t fix this. I’ve tried for hours and I can’t do it,” Lee said. “I think you have to start over.”