By Mike Linn
PNT Managing Editor
With almost $300 million in taxpayer money sought to fund the Ute Pipeline Project, organizers say public information regarding the intricacies of an increasingly complex plan is essential.
To help explain, educate and promote the project, the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority formed a four-member public information committee at Wednesday’s monthly meeting in Portales.
“This program is critical,” Portales Mayor Orlando Ortega said. “We need to build confidence in the public that this is the right thing to do.”
Ortega and Clovis Mayor David Lansford said an area resident recently claimed Ute Lake would eventually run dry because it’s not fed by any rivers.
Ute Lake is fed by the Canadian River, but ENMRWA officials now know that is not common knowledge.
Moreover, Logan residents located closest to Ute Lake fear the lake’s surface level may drop too far below normal levels once the pipeline begins furbishing homes with water, said Village of Logan Councilman Bill Holman.
ENMRWA officials plan to impose various conservation measures to keep the levels steady, but a study from the Interstate Stream Commission hasn’t been finished.
Officials on Wednesday also discussed a growing fear among residents that the price of the project will most certainly rise again in the future. Project Manager Scott Verhines said those fears are justified given inflation.
“The cost of the project is what it would cost today if we were able to go build it, and obviously it’s not going to be built today,” Verhines said.
The estimated cost of the project is $292 million, but Verhines said the price could rise to $352 million in 10 years, the slated timetable for completion.
Ten percent — or an additional $6 million — of the increase would be paid for by the municipalities in Curry, Quay and Roosevelt counties, given 80 percent of the project is funded by the federal government and 10 percent by the state.
Lansford said nailing down a firm estimated cost is extremely important.
The Clovis mayor said he has spoken with some residents who feel the project is too expensive, claiming the municipalities should move more toward buying water rights now used for agricultural use.
Of the 25 voters on the PNT’s current Web poll, 56 percent believe the project will never happen because the price is too high. Twenty percent of voters believe it will be completed within 15 years, and 20 percent believe within 10.
ENMRWA officials, however, believe the pipeline is the best option for the future, and are hoping the public information committee will open avenues to persuade residents.
Last week’s public television documentary titled, “Just Add Water: Facing New Mexico’s Water Issues,” was a step in the right direction, officials said.
Hosting town hall meetings in Quay, Curry and Roosevelt counties may also help residents understand the necessity of the project, ENMRWA officials said.
“We can’t afford to do it, yet we can’t afford to not do it either,” Portales City Councilman Gary Watkins said after the meeting.