By Jack King: CNJ Staff
U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici told members of the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority last week that he will not support federal funding of the Ute Water Project for at least two years, an ENMRWA official said Wednesday.
Portales Mayor Orlando Ortega said Domenici told ENMRWA members — who were in Washington, D.C., last week lobbying for Congressional support of the project — the timing was not right.
Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., has introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives a companion bill to the project authorization bill introduced by U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., in early June.
Ortega urged board members to not be discouraged, but to “face reality right now.
“We need to look at another game plan to get us through this time, if funding is not authorized in 12 to 24 months,” he said.
Project Manager Scott Verhines said board members have been discussing how to find a combination of local, state and federal funding — between $5 million and $6 million — to get the project through the next two years.
Domenici and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner John W. Keys told a Congressional subcommittee on June 17 they will not support a bill authorizing the project to receive federal money at this time.
The ENMRWA board members went to Washington last week to shore up support for the bill. Members of the delegation were Ortega, Tucumcari Mayor Antonio Apodaca, Clovis City Commissioner Catherine Haynes, Tucumcari City Manager Richard Primrose and ENMRWA Project Manager Scott Verhines.
Ortega said Domenici’s aide Nate Gentry told them Congress may not have the money to fund the project at this time.
“The war in Iraq has put a twist on things throughout the country,” Ortega said.
Bingaman and Michael Connor, Democratic counsel to the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, cited two concerns about the bill, he said.
They said one concern is the 80 percent federal funding requested for the project. Connor said the federal government has only funded three projects at more than 75 percent since 2000.
The second concern is Bureau of Reclamation objections to funding water treatment projects in Tucumcari and Logan as part of the Ute Water Project. Keys told a Senate subcommittee the bureau does not fund waste water treatment projects.
Haynes said she went to Washington hoping to change Domenici’s mind.
“But, it was obvious he has his mind made up,” she said.
She also said the Iraq war and the federal deficit are playing key roles in the lack of funds.
Haynes said one argument for authorizing the Ute Water Project is that New Mexico’s base realignment and closure committee has stated one criteria for keeping Cannon Air Force Base open is the availability of a reliable source of water.
Primrose said the group told Congressional delegates Tucumcari and Logan plan to move forward on their water treatment projects and will look for other sources of funding for them.
But Bureau of Reclamation representative Miguel Rocha said the bureau makes exceptions to its rule against funding waste water treatment projects. The bureau built and owned a waste water treatment project in Arbuckle, Okla., he said.
Verhines said his reading of Domenici’s remarks was that Domenici still supports the project, but wants to know where its funding will come from to support it.
In other business:
• The board voted to send a letter to the Ute Water Commission recommending the commission sign a contract with the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission to buy water for the Ute Water Project at a graduated rate of payment. The payments would start low and increase over a 40-year period.
The contract will obligate communities to find the money to pay for the water, but the Ute Water Project must start paying for the water by Dec. 31, 2006, or risk losing it, Verhines said.
ISC representative Doug Murray told the board the ISC will not negotiate to extend the ENMRWA’s reservation of the water past the 2006 deadline.
“The ISC’s position is to move the project forward or we have other options.” he said. “We’ve been approached by other communities and we could move the water to Pecos River or to communities upstream on the Canadian River,” he said.
Kevin Powers, of the financial consultant Dain Rauscher, said he has finished a study of project communities’ financial capabilities and will deliver a report to each community within the next two weeks.
Powers said he has found no “fatal flaws” in the communities’ abilities to fund the project. But, adjustments will be needed, especially in smaller communities, which will have to sharply increase their revenues to pay their shares. Operation and maintenance costs continue to be the most significant part of the communities’ financial needs, he said.