Plenty of work left on Ute water project

Freedom New Mexico: Thomas Garcia The Ute Water Project would deliver water from the Ute Reservoir in Quay County to the eight member entities of the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority.

By Kevin Wilson

The Ute Water Project’s been approved. But there are plenty of details left to pour over.

The dry facts: The Ute Water Project would deliver water from the Ute Reservoir in Quay County to the eight member entities of the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority. Those members are Clovis, Portales, Melrose, Grady, Elida, Texico and Roosevelt and Curry counties.

The pipes, which will range in size from 48 inches in diameter at the start of the reservoir to 8 inches in diameter in Elida, will deliver 16,450 acre feet of water per year. One acre foot equals about 330,000 gallons.

Scott Verhines, project manager, said the pipeline would likely deliver 12,000 acre feet within its first year of operation.

“When we first turn the system on, there won’t be a demand for all of that immediately, because we projected growth.”

The estimated cost of the project is $432 million, with the federal government paying 75 percent, the state 15 and the authority members 10 percent. Portales Mayor and Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority Vice Chair Orlando Ortega said a new cost estimate is needed, as the most recent estimate is from 2005.

The legislation was put in an omnibus lands bill, passed the Senate and House of Representatives and was signed into law by President Barack Obama March 30.

When can it start: The project is authorized, but has not been funded. The next step, Verhines said, is to go through the appropriations process. A Washington, D.C. trip is planned for the end of the month, with the focus on getting dollars as soon as October.

Money for some projects could come sooner through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and Ortega is hopeful that the combination of that and an Obama administration promising infrastructure funds could get the project done in five-plus years, not 10-plus years.

“I think if we could build a project (today),” Ortega said, “or start within the next few years instead of peacemealing it, it could save us millions.”

The project is close to 30 percent design, and design manager Greg Gates of CH2MHill in Albuquerque said the next 70 percent becomes a fine-tuning of the beginning 30 percent.

“You start off at a conceptual level, where you’d say, ‘We’d probably run a pipeline over here,’” Gates said. “(Then) you’re going out and saying, we’re going to look at the land, who owns the land, where the pipe would go. You’re getting more detailed information about the geotechnology. You’re getting a better handle on costs.”

As far as finishing the project, all the officials say it depends on how the project gets funded.

“You could probably finish final design over the course of about a year. The whole project could be constructed, if you had the cash ready to go, over a five-and-a-half-year period.”

The flow of stimulus: Verhines said he got a letter from the Bureau of Reclamation, which is tasked to spend up to $326 million to fund the project.

“We were asked specifically to respond to the Bureau of Reclamation … on how we would spend some direct stimulus money,” Verhines said. “That was a request coming from Reclamation to us, not the other way around, so that was a good sign.”

The project Verhines is promoting is an intake structure, a combination of pipelines and a pump station. The structure would have a T-pipe, where water would go left to authority members and right to Quay County communities that dropped out of the project but still kept their water reservations.

“We think it helps a lot from a number of standpoints, politically, technically,” Verhines said. “Administratively, it’s a lot easier on the state to maintain one structure than five. Politically, it shows bricks and mortar on the ground.”

Stimulus money is available as soon as May 1, and Verhines said the intake structure could be done in 12 to 18 months.

Legal matters: Another proposed step is moving the authority from its position as a joint powers agreement to a water utility.

Verhines gave three reasons why the utility would be beneficial:

• The Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority currently operates as a joint powers agreement, and there’s not much to stop a city or county from leaving. With the financial backing required for the project, Verhines said, federal lawmakers would want to know there’s unity on the local level.

• The utility designation could improve bond rates and the ability to raise the authority’s 10 percent financial match.

• Verhines said a utility could operate independently. Clovis currently serves at the authority’s fiscal agent, though the project is larger than the city’s budget. “They’ve got a city to run in Clovis,” Verhines said, “and you need an entity that will run this system once it’s in place.”

The act was introduced as draft legislation as House Bill 861, Verhines said, to start the vetting process in preparation for the next Legislature. The earliest the utility could be a reality is July 1, 2010.

Ortega said work needs to be done to prevent the legislation from becoming a power grab.

The bill, in current form, would allow the authority to “plan, design, develop, purchase, acquire, own, operate, establish, construct and maintain” the water system and a wastewater system “by any available means.”

That’s not comforting to Ortega, who notes Portales owns its water and wastewater system and wants to keep Ute Reservoir water as a supplemental source.

“There are a lot of concerns with the wording of the language,” Ortega said. “It can mean so many different things. We feel there are other ways we can proceed with this project, and we’re going to look at those.”

Ortega said at Wednesday’s authority meeting that one possibility could be Portales staying out of the utility, but stand by its financial obligations.