By Kevin Wilson: CNJ staff writer
MELROSE — The communities of eastern New Mexico took a mobilized, aggressive approach in keeping Cannon Air Force Base alive. Members of the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority are starting to feel they’ll need a similar effort for the proposed Ute Water Project.
As a bill to authorize the construction of pipeline to pump drinking water from the Ute Lake Reservoir to Clovis, Portales and surrounding communities waits for introduction in the final days of the 109th Congress, ENMRWA board members feel the $432 million project needs a grassroots effort to garner its necessary federal funding.
“You mobilized your efforts when Cannon was in trouble,” project manager Scott Verhines said. “This issue is every bit, if not twice as important, as what happened there.”
Verhines said numerous studies have been done over the last four decades regarding the future water supply for eastern New Mexico, and all studies show the Ute Water Project as the most cost efficient.
The main obstacle, board members said at Wednesday’s meeting, was generating federal support for the project.
U.S. Sens. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., introduced a Senate bill to authorize the project before Congress went into recess, and Verhines said every effort will be made to allow ENMRWA members to testify on behalf of the project when the Senate comes back into session in late November.
If an opportunity to testify does not come, Verhines said the Congressional delegates have assured him the bill will be introduced early in the 110th Congress.
Water board Chairman and Clovis Mayor David Lansford said a grassroots effort may be necessary so the project is known to Congressional representatives before any testimony takes place.
In previous Washington visits, Lansford said, he and Portales Mayor Orlando Ortega would spend days setting up a 10-minute appointment with a member of Congress, only to address little more than preliminary details.
Lansford said he would like to get a meeting of at least two hours with Domenici, the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. His preference would be to bring Domenici to eastern New Mexico so he could see the immediate water problems of authority members, including Texico and Elida.
“It’s not all Clovis and Portales,” Lansford said, “but we’re going to be saved by the same project.”
Randal Crowder, a representative for the city of Clovis, said a viable option would be to request Domenici hold a town hall meeting, but specifically directed toward water issues.
Lansford agreed, saying town hall meetings are a necessity for the authority to build a grassroots effort, and a town hall with Domenici would do much more. He added that he doesn’t recall Domenici having a town hall meeting in eastern New Mexico in the last five years.
“People need to see their senator other than a crisis for Cannon or a ribbon cutting for an industrial development,” Lansford said, referring to a plant opening for Southwest Cheese in Curry County and an expansion to the Abengoa Bioenergy ethanol plant in Portales.
Domenici spokesman Chris Gallegos said:
“There’s always a possibility Sen. Domenici is open to meetings on any given subject,” Gallegos said. “On the Ute pipeline, he’s had numerous meetings with (authority representatives) over the last three years.”
Gallegos said Domenici is familiar with the interests of all of the ENMRWA entities, noting that he has a “water team” made up of staff members from his and other Washington offices. He also noted Domenici introduced a bill authorizing a state study of aquifers in New Mexico, including the Ogallala Aquifer.
Lansford said having Domenici and Bingaman supporting the bill will carry a lot of clout, since other senators will vote with them to garner support for their legislation. However, he added the local water authority might need to help the process by finding ways to lobby out-of-state congressional representatives without using public money.
Ortega said time is of the essence with the project, pointing to ever-growing cost projections. An analysis of the project presented at the authority’s August meeting showed a $50 million jump from previous cost estimates for the project.
Ortega said there will be a day when the project cost is too high — he used $1 billion as an example — and there’s no chance it would garner support.
“I remember sitting in the audience 10 years ago for this project (with a $200 million price tag),” said Ortega, who was elected as Portales’ mayor in 2002. “At some point, we’re going to cross that path to where people say it’s not economically feasible.”
In other business at the meeting:
• Verhines said the authority appreciated Gov. Bill Richardson committing $5 million to the project earlier this month, but that it wasn’t enough to show the funding model will work. Verhines said he has met with state legislators and figures the 2007 Legislature will put in a $2.3 million capital outlay request for the project.
• Authority members agreed to authorize Albuquerque consulting company CH2M HILL to conduct a feasibility study on creating a wind energy plant and using revenues to help offset the Ute project cost.
• Members gave Lansford authority to sign off on an environmental service contract with ERO Resource Corp. of Denver when specific financial terms are complete.