By Kevin Wilson: CNJ staff writer
TEXICO — All members of the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority stress they believe in the Ute Water Project and believe it’s a necessary destination.
How they get there became the debate during Wednesday’s authority meeting.
At issue was ENMRWA Vice Chairman and Portales Mayor Orlando Ortega’s decision not to vote for any further studies relating to the Ute Water project without discussing the matter with his city council.
Ortega’s decision, also adopted by Grady Mayor Wesley Shafer, stems from his belief that previous studies have overwhelmingly said the project to pump drinking water from the Ute Reservoir to participating communities is the most efficient solution available.
Under terms of a bill scheduled to be introduced in the 110th Congress, the federal government would authorize a 75 percent share of the project, which had an estimated cost of $435 million last summer. Ortega has said further studies take away from energy that could be devoted to gaining federal authorization and, later, federal appropriations.
Members who disagreed with Ortega, including Authority Chairman and Clovis Mayor David Lansford, said any sign of division would give the federal government reason to walk away from the project.
“We’re sending a message that we anticipate failure. I don’t anticipate failure,” Lansford said. “I anticipate success, whatever the cost. The plan has to move forward.”
Clovis Mayor Pro-Tem Randy Crowder echoed Lansford’s comments, and said support on the state level is high with the state committing up to $7.2 million in the upcoming legislative session — an indication Gov. Bill Richardson would support $5 million in capital outlay and a $2.2 million payment from the state water trust fund.
Crowder and others said federal support is also better now than it has ever been — especially with Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairing the Senate Natural Resource Committee.
“The urgency is being communicated,” Lansford said. “It’s bigger than ever before, and I think they understand our frustration that they haven’t moved as fast as we would like from the federal level.”
Ortega said the authority also needed to look at other inefficiencies. He didn’t want to get into details at the meeting, but hinted that it seemed wasteful to pay a project manager $35,000 a month to tell an independent engineering company to do work for the authority.
Project Manager Scott Verhines responded he is more than willing to meet with authority members to determine duties, and that he’s working diligently on efforts with the state legislature and the 110th Congress.
If they couldn’t reach agreement, Verhines said the parties could part ways when his contract expires in April. Ortega requested an executive session to discuss personnel matters. Lansford declined the request and said discussing personnel matters relating to Verhines couldn’t be done in executive session because he is a contract employee.
Ortega said he would like to meet with authority members on a one-on-one basis.
Ortega and Portales City Manager Debi Lee said they aren’t trying to show a lack of unity by not voting for studies, but that they wanted to spend money wisely. Lee said that further studies might do nothing more than benefit engineering companies.
“I think it’s important for us to be accountable for the money spent,” Lee said. “We don’t want to spend the money because we have it.”
Ortega said later in the meeting he was committed to a unified authority, adding if the need to testify in Washington arises later, the entire authority should make the trip.
Verhines said he hoped that wouldn’t be necessary, as the current aim is to have a water hearing in eastern New Mexico to increase local presence and give congressmen from across the country a look at the area’s water needs.