State engineer: Ute project one of most critical in U.S.

Argen Duncan

The proposed $500 million Ute Pipeline is one of the most critical rural drinking water projects in the United States, New Mexico’s state engineer said Thursday.

As one of several speakers at the Ute Pipeline news conference Thursday at the Yam event center in Portales, State Engineer John D’Antonio also said federal money is vital to the project.

The conference was aimed to draw attention to the project’s need for federal money. The three members of the area’s Congressional delegation wrote support letters, and local leaders and water experts spoke on the need for the pipeline.

Portales Mayor Sharon King said the area water situation would become critical in the next 20 years.

In a letter read by aide Diane Ventura, U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said this type of project would provide jobs and economic support for years to come.

In a letter read by King, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said the groundwater’s decline is exacerbated by the interstate span and use of the Ogallala Aquifer.

“As the extent of this dwindling resource becomes more and more uncertain, the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water System has become absolutely critical for the continued economic well-being of Curry, Roosevelt and Quay counties in eastern New Mexico,” Udall said.

Clovis Mayor Gayla Brumfield, also the chairwoman of the Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority, said the project had been under way since the 1960s.

“As I look around the community, we have a vibrant community, and this project will take us into the next generations,” Brumfield said.

Ute Water Commission chairman Darrel Bostwick said in the 1960s, people could drill almost anywhere and get 600 to 1,000 gallons of water per minute. Now, they’re lucky to get 200 gallons a minute, he said, and the aquifer is dry in some areas.

“We’ve reached a critical point in our need for this water, and we need to advance as fast as possible,” Bostwick said.

Agriculture representative Hoyt Pattison said the proposed first phase of the pipeline, a 20-mile section north and west of Clovis, would allow farmers to sell their water to entities that needed it.

“This would be an interim step to bridge the gap between the dwindling of wells that currently supply Clovis and the materializing of the Ute Water Pipeline,” Pattison said.

Water prices need to compete with producers’ current agricultural earnings, he said.

Portales City Manager Tom Howell said conservation efforts can only go so far. Also, wells are drying up, Howell continued, so the city must go farther away for water, increasing costs.

Daniel Bailet, vice president and general manager of New Mexico American Water, said the company has more than doubled its number of wells to produce 20 percent less water. Plus, the company is investing more in pumping facilities while seeing production drops in double-digit percentages every year.

“The aquifer is yielding less and less at higher and higher cost,” he said.

New Mexico American Water employees have found “little to no salvation” in the formation below the aquifer.

Also, Bailet said Clovis residential water users have seen 45-percent to 50-percent increases in water rates, while profitability for the company declined.

Pipeline Project Manager Scott Verhines said residents could help by supporting efforts to create the pipeline and giving serious consideration to water conservation.