Portales in line for stimulus funds

By Gabriel Monte: Freedom New Mexico

Clovis and Portales are getting in line for their share of almost
$40 million in stimulus money about to be distributed in New Mexico.

New Mexico is set to receive the federal stimulus money to improve
water quality, drinking water infrastructure and sewage treatment
systems.

Municipalities have until Monday to submit applications, according
to Karen Gallegos, the state environmental department’s director for
water and wastewater infrastructure development division.

However she said Clovis is in the pipeline to receive the stimulus
money through a previous uniform funding application, which could also
qualify the city for money from other sources.

The city is requesting stimulus funds to upgrade its 20-year-old
wastewater treatment plant. The state is still trying to decide how to
divide the new federal cash.

Clovis Public Works Director Clint Bunch said the city needs to
upgrade its electrical system and its aerating system, which treats
wastewater.

“It’s outlived its life expectancy. It’s pretty far gone,” Bunch said.

He said cost estimates for the upgrade amount to $8.5 million.

Portales is also seeking stimulus funds for a new wastewater
treatment plant. Portales Public Works Director Tom Howell said the
project will cost about $22 million and the city has already received
$7 million in federal funds.

“We’ve raised our rates but we don’t really have a lot set aside,” he said.

Gallegos said the department expects the stimulus money between two
to three months and once it is awarded, municipalities have a five-year
period to spend it, she said.

She said qualified projects must be able to start within a year.

The money will be available through the clean water and drinking water state revolving funds.

The New Mexico Environment Department is reviewing applications for
the funds and will prepare a list of shovel-ready projects for the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency.

“There are a lot of needs across the state. We just want to make
sure those needs are met and the most urgent needs met first,” said
Marissa Stone, a spokeswoman for the Environment Department.

But officials from around the state agree the additional money will
barely put a dent in what New Mexico communities need as they work to
modernize their water systems to keep up with booming populations and
meet more demanding federal requirements.

In one of the state’s fastest growing cities, workers on Wednesday
filled the last of three large filtration tanks with gravel at Rio
Rancho’s new arsenic removal plant. It is set to go into operation next
month, and the city has plans for more arsenic removal systems at other
wells.

Rio Rancho and other municipalities have been busy making lists of
water infrastructure priorities with hopes some of the stimulus money
will filter down to them.

The department also wants to make sure the funding is evenly
distributed across the state to large and small water systems, she said.

The state estimates there are around $100 million worth of water and wastewater projects that are ready to go.

While the stimulus money will meet only a fraction of the state’s
need, Deputy Environment Secretary Jon Goldstein said officials are
looking at piecing together funding from other sources “so we can get
more bang for our buck.”

Rio Rancho’s top drinking water priority is a $4.5 million project
to remove naturally occurring arsenic at two of the city’s wells. City
spokesman Peter Wells said the design is complete and the city is ready
to start the project.

“We’ve got a number of projects that we’ve assessed. They’ve been
designed. They’re ready to go and in some cases we just need some
remaining funding and in other cases full funding,” Wells said.

In southern New Mexico, Ruidoso Mayor Ray Nunley said his community
is hoping for some of the stimulus money to complete work on a
wastewater treatment plant. Nunley said the project is being funded
through a combination of state and federal funding, bonds and loans.
The stimulus money would mean the village wouldn’t have to borrow as
much.

Nunley is cautious since New Mexico is slated to get only $19.4
million in clean water funds and another $19.5 million in drinking
water funds.

“Everybody seems to be a little bit excited about what the
possibilities are and I think we’re all thinking a little bit too
high,” he said. “I’m not sure we’re going to get as much as we want but
everybody is in the same boat — in Ruidoso, Alamogordo, Cloudcroft, and
Albuquerque’s no different. We’ve got water pipes that are 75 years
old. We’ve got a lot of infrastructure that needs some work.”

In Mesquite, just north of the international border, many of the
water lines are old and too small to meet flow requirements for fire
hydrants, said Martin Lopez of the Mesquite Mutual Water Association.
His community has requested $6 million in stimulus money for drinking
water and wastewater projects.

Cindy Huntsman, former president of the New Mexico Water and
Wastewater Association, said many water associations in the state are
one- and two-man operations that don’t have pocketbooks large enough to
repair or replace their systems.

Huntsman and Lopez said with such a need, word has spread fast about the possibility of getting a piece of the stimulus money.

“The word is out there. It’s just trying to get on the list and get up there high enough where you can be heard,” Huntsman said.

The Associated Press Contributed to this story.