Officials break ground on Ute pipeline project amid protests

Kevin Wilson

As a light rain sprinkled over the Ute Reservoir, the sounds of protest drowned out officials’ optimistic vision of progress and a long-term solution for eastern New Mexico’s water supply.

Hundreds attended Thursday’s groundbreaking ceremony for the first phase of the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water System, commonly known as the Ute Water Project, ranging from Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., to Clovis and Portales city officials, to other officials marking the ceremonial first step to the $432 million pipeline project.

But the three dozen public officials, supporters and media members were far outnumbered by Logan and Quay County residents, who lined the road leading up to the reservoir and surrounded the small ceremony with jeers and chants to protest concerns the authority will drain the lake, which is tied into local economies.

“This is an exciting time,” Clovis Mayor and Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority Chair Gayla Brumfield said. “Can everybody hear me?”

The answer: Barely. As she and others spoke, they were countered by protesters in front of them on the road and behind them in boats on the reservoir. Protest organizers put the total between 300 and 400 residents.

“I think it went well,” said Ben Newton, a Logan business owner who helped organize the protest. “We had asked for people to keep it civil; no profanity, no outlandish thing. It was controlled well, we had a good turnout.”

Chanters suggested not too subtly that the visitors, “Go home,” but also requested they, “Save our lake,” and respect “3,765,” in reference to the community’s desired elevation in feet for the reservoir, which was created though legislative action nearly a half-century ago as a potable water source for eastern New Mexico, with water reserved by several communities.

The first phase is an intake structure, or pumping station, that would move the water from the reservoir to authority members that have reserved it — Clovis, Portales, Texico, Melrose, Grady, Elida and Curry and Roosevelt counties. Planned delivery is 16,450 acre feet annually, or approximately 5.4 billion gallons.

“We understand,” said Newton, who has owned Ruf-Nec Tackle since 2000. “We know they own the water rights; we’re not contesting that. What we are asking is … for a permanent pool at the elevation of 3,765. We feel that is viable for our area.

“If their information is correct, that elevation should not affect their pipeline and what they do.”

Logan residents and officials know the history and intent of the reservoir, but also feel conditions have changed over 50 years, as the village of about 1,000 has current and future economic development tied to the lake and its resort capabilities.

“I think some form of the project will happen,” said Logan Mayor David Babb, who was pleased with the protest turnout. “Hopefully, we’ll have some sort of minimum (elevation requirement). Logan can’t survive without a sustainable lake there.”

Officials said the concerns were heard, in every facet.

“I know the protest is what’s getting all of the attention,” said Bingaman, who wrote the authorization for the pipeline project in a 2009 omnibus bill. “But I think the project we’re delivering is a very good project for eastern New Mexico. I think it can be accomplished and constructed in a way that keeps the lake and resort very much as it is now.”

Brumfield said the authority has no intention to drain the lake, and State Engineer John D’Antonio said water that doesn’t go to eastern New Mexico would otherwise go to Texas.

Scott Verhines, who has served as project manager since 1999, said work is ongoing for a drought management plan through the Bureau of Reclamation that would set elevation limits — though it might be a calculation of current circumstances and not a fixed elevation.

“It’s not something that we have to have tomorrow,” Verhines said. “It’s going to be a number of years before a significant amount of water comes out of the reservoir.”

Much of the funding — $327 million of it authorized federally — remains to be appropriated. Bingaman, who is retiring after his term expires next year, plans to bring his eventual successor up to speed on the project’s importance.

“There are a lot of (instances) where we have projects that will take several years to get funded,” Bingaman said. “That’s the normal way Congress operates. I’m sure our delegation will continue to treat this as a priority. There are a lot of (instances) where we have projects that will take several years to get funded. That’s the normal way Congress operates. I’m sure our delegation will continue to treat this as a priority.”