Water authority counting on senator

By Kevin Wilson: CNJ staff writer

PORTALES — The impending retirement of U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., one of the biggest supporters of the Ute Water Project, seems on the surface to be an obstacle for the project’s chances of authorization and funding.

Members of the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority, and its advocates, are hoping to turn the obstacle into an opportunity.

“We’re counting on him to be our big champion in this last year,” State Sen. John Ryan, R-Albuquerque, a Washington advocate for the project, said at Wednesday’s Water Authority meeting. “He may want to leave a legacy in the water area, and particularly in this project.”

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairs the Senate’s Natural Resources and Energy Committee. But Domenici’s departure means New Mexico would lose its ranking member on the committee, and some clout for seeking federal authorization.

Authorization is the first key, followed by funding, for the $432 million project that would pump water from the Ute Reservoir in Quay County to the authority’s eight entities.

Ryan spoke of Domenici, and the domino effect of his open seat in the 2008 election, in his attack plan for federal authorization. Whoever replaces him, Ryan reasoned, could be an ally if the authority can educate those running for Domenici’s seat or for open House of Representatives seats. Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., has already announced her intention to run, while Steve Pearce, R-N.M., is in the exploratory stages.

Former State Rep. Joe Thompson, R-Albuquerque, is a state advocate for the authority. He echoed Ryan’s sentiments about using Domenici’s final year as leverage to make progress nationally and statewide.

“I think it gives us an incredible opportunity to gain traction and enthusiasm,” Thompson said, “and a sense of urgency in Santa Fe.”

Thompson said he has been in talks with the New Mexico Municipal League and Bill Hume, a top advisor to Gov. Bill Richardson. He said he felt encouraged by the talks, but said he’ll be communicating much more closely with the authority in the months leading to the 2008 Legislature because, “these are not decisions the advocate makes.”

In other business during the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority meeting:
—Members approved an agreement with RBC Financial to do work on the project’s financial plan and handle work for the authority’s transition into a governmental authority. The current ENMRWA operates more as a joint powers agreement, and an authority would help procure better interest rates for bonds.

The authority had previously set aside $100,000 for contract work not yet identified, Project Manager Scott Verhines said. The work from RBC would require about $40,000, plus an undetermined amount for hourly consultant work.

Portales Mayor Orlando Ortega brought the motion up for a vote, and it received unanimous passage. Ortega did preface the motion by echoing the sense of urgency.

“This kind of information is only good if it’s current,” Ortega said. “If we don’t (get authorization), we have to go through this process year after year.”

Kevin Powers, an RBC representative, said the Ute Water Project, despite its high price tag, is a much easier sell than other state water projects.

“It’s amazing the numbers for some of these water projects that have a lot more obstacles than yours,” Powers said.

—Verhines recommended as many authority members as possible attend the Interstate Streams Commission’s meeting Wednesday in Logan. Authority Chairman David Lansford said he had sent Mayor Pro Tem Randy Crowder to the last meeting, and Crowder gave the area a new face.

—The next meeting was set for 3 p.m. Nov. 28 at the Texico Community Center. The meeting is expected to run from 3-5 p.m., with a 6 p.m. public information meeting held afterward.