Bingaman to introduce Ute water bill in February

By Kevin Wilson: Freedom New Mexico

Continued funding for the Ute Water Project depends on decisions that will be made in February.

That’s when the New Mexico Legislature is finishing a 30-day session, for which Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority members hope to procure $10.5 million in capital outlay. It’s also when Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., plans to introduce a bill to federally authorize the project.

The project, with a $432 million price tag, would involve constructing a pipeline to carry water from the Ute Reservoir in Quay County to the authority members.

Bingaman, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, plans to introduce a bill to authorize the project in February, according to Diane Ventura, a representative from Bingaman’s Roswell office.

The project would be funded 75 percent federally, 15 percent by the state and 10 percent by authority members. Since the federal component is by far the largest, that’s been the biggest priority. John Ryan, who has been a consultant for the project’s federal component, said the presence of Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., is an opportunity they’ll soon lose. The senator, who has always been supportive of the project, is retiring for health reasons and all three of New Mexico’s House of Representative members are running for his seat.

“We don’t know what the delegation is going to look like in 2009,” Ryan said, “so we are making the play that this is the year to do it.”

Project Manager Scott Verhines said funding from the state Legislature is key to showing Congress a level of commitment, and plans are in the works for two capital outlay requests. The first would be for $6.5 million, and the second would come from State Engineer John D’Antonio for $4 million.

The $4 million, Verhines said, would be to make up the difference between a $5 million promise from Gov. Bill Richardson in his 2007 “year of water” initiative and the $1 million actually received.

That amount, Verhines said, plus the money currently on hand, would keep the project funded through 2010, when he expects to reach the 70 percent design level.

In other business at the meeting:

• Authority Chairman David Lansford, who could not attend the meeting, plans to continue working with the authority when his term as mayor is up. Mayor Pro tem Randy Crowder said he plans to appoint Lansford back on the authority through the city commission in the coming months.

“I see David as our leader,” Crowder said. “I couldn’t imagine anyone else going to testify on our behalf.”

Currently, Melrose representative Darrel Bostwick is the only appointed authority member. The rest are elected officials.

• Members discussed a meeting scheduled today in Tucumcari covering Ute Lake Ranch, a planned resort development. The authority has no problem with the area around the reservoir being used for economic development, but has concerns about water quality.

• The next meeting is scheduled for 3 p.m. Feb. 20 at Melrose High School.