Ute Water bill in trouble

By Jack King

The commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation told members of a U.S. Senate subcommittee Thursday the Bush administration does not support authorization legislation for the Ute Water Project as it is written.
And in a press release Thursday, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said he also would not support the bill as introduced.
“I am concerned that funding to make the pipeline a reality is not available in this budgetary environment. I want to review how we are going to find that money. I am not willing to pass an authorizing bill that has little chance of being fulfilled,” Domenici said in the release.
Clovis Mayor David Lansford and New Mexico State Engineer John D’Antonio were in Washington on Thursday to testify on behalf of the authorization legislation before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources’ subcommittee on water and power.
Both Lansford and D’Antonio said federal opposition to the project is based on budgetary concerns and is not the end of the project.
Lansford said opposition early in a major bill’s introduction is not uncommon and answering the bureau’s questions will make the project stronger.
The Ute Water Project is viewed by many as the only long-term sustainable source of water for the area, Lansford said.
Eastern New Mexico sits above the Ogallala aquifer, which is declining. Estimates of how long it can continue to provide water range from 15 years to 40 years, based on current demand.
Estimates place the cost of the project at just over $307 million. Plans call for asking the federal government to provide about 80 percent of the funds, with 10 percent to come from the state and 10 percent to come from local governments.
The bill, titled the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water System Act of 2004, was written and sponsored by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. It authorizes the Bureau of Reclamation to spend up to $250 million to assist the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority in constructing a pipeline that would supply water from Ute Lake near Logan to communities in Curry, Roosevelt and Quay counties.
But Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner John W. Keys III said the bureau has a number of questions about the project.
He said the cost-share percentage set forth in the legislation, which asked the federal government to contribute 80 percent of the cost, is beyond the normal federal cost share. The administration would require non-federal participants to provide at least 35 percent of the funding, Keys said.
He said the proposed ENMRWA system would include a wastewater treatment facility and the bureau does not generally participate in the development of wastewater treatment systems. In March, ENMRWA board members added a sewer system for the village of Logan and a remodeled wastewater treatment system for Tucumcari to project expenses.
D’Antonio said the 80 percent contribution the project is asking from the federal government might have worked several years ago, but is less viable now, because of the federal deficit and other budgetary issues.
“The Iraq war is going to hurt everybody, all Western states that need water projects,” he said.
“The Bureau of Reclamation is even balking at 75 percent participation. It’s looking at 50/50 participation plans,” he said.
He added that the state of New Mexico still supports the project.
“New Mexico spent a lot of money in the 1960s to acquire those water rights and we want to use them in New Mexico,” D’Antonio said.
Lansford said Keys told him after the subcommittee meeting that the bureau is not opposed to the Ute Water Project, but has some questions about the way the project is formulated.
Despite Keys’ questions about wastewater treatment projects connected to the project, Lansford said he will continue to support the Logan and Tucumcari projects.
“We feel those projects are central to original source water protection,” he said.
Domenici’s opposition stems from the fact that the senator is looking at the overall federal budget, Lansford said.
In a press release Thursday, Bingaman said the subcommittee hearing was the first step toward gaining final passage of the bill. The next step is gaining the support of Bingaman’s fellow members of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, he said.
Bingaman said he will work hard to convince the Bush administration to support the bill.
“These communities, given their present reliance on diminishing supplies of groundwater, are united in their efforts to secure a long-term renewable source of water that will sustain their current way of life. It’s my view the federal government should make funding available to help cover the cost of that endeavor,” he said.