By Robin Fornoff
CMI Projects Editor
A new voice with a controversial past has emerged as a leader in the debate over the Ute Water Project.
Greg Neal is a developer and consultant now pushing hard to force a new study of Ute lake reservoir and questioning how the project has been handled by the Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority.
Neal is also the target of considerable speculation and rumor based on a failed development in Florida and another near Truth or Consequences that New Mexico State Land Office officials say is a bad deal for taxpayers.
Neal dismisses much of the speculation as politics. He says he represents more than 150 members of a group calling itself Concerned Citizens of Curry and Roosevelt Counties (CCCRC). He declined to identify any member or officer of the group. He also declined to disclose who is paying him or what he charges.
Neal, who has a long history of land development, did say he has no financial interest in the Ute reservoir or land near it other than fees he collects as a consultant representing landowners and others in Logan, Clovis and Portales. He also said though some of his other clients are in the gas and oil industry, none has any interest in Ute Lake or its waters.
CCCRC is, Neal said, “A group of homeowners, property owners in Quay, Curry and Roosevelt counties. They own properties in all three places. They’re rate payers and they’re taxpayers. They’re extremely concerned that alternatives have not been evaluated … and it (Ute water project) is not a good use of taxpayer money.”
The Ute project — a plan to build a pipeline from Ute Lake to Curry and Roosevelt counties — is estimated to cost $500 million. Neal says common sense dictates the need for a new study because one hasn’t been completed since the John J. Whipple study some 20 years ago.
In the three months since emerging as spokesman for CCCRC at several public hearings, Neal has managed to provoke powerful political figures who back the Ute project.
Former Clovis Mayor Gayla Brumfield, who chairs the regional water authority in charge of the project, calls Neal a “proven liar.” She and others, including former Curry County Commission Chairman Caleb Chandler, point to a St. Petersburg, Fla., newspaper investigation of Neal’s proposed development with Hillsborough Community College.
The newspaper reported in 2008 it caught Neal in no less than 20 exaggerations or making outright false statements in his proposals to develop a world class sports medicine complex at Hillsborough.
Neal disputed the newspaper account and said the development got caught in a political fight between Hillsborough and the University of South Florida.
Neal has most recently provoked Chandler, also a member of the Canadian River Commission, with an email sent Oct. 3 to water officials in Oklahoma and Texas. Ute Lake was created by damming the Canadian River and the compact, made up of members from New Mexico and the two states, serves as a watchdog to protect the river’s uses.
Neal’s email urges Oklahoma and Texas to join the push for a new study to determine if Ute lake is a sustainable water source.
Neal said he wrote the email because he and his group keep hearing rumors that Oklahoma and Texas plan to sue New Mexico once the Ute project is complete.
“It’s literally a diversion of the Canadian River,” said Neal, adding he wanted to get the other two states involved now in hopes of saving New Mexico from “a very expensive and contentious lawsuit.”
Chandler and state New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission Director Estevan Lopez shot off a letter of response Thursday to Canadian River commissioners from both states. They charged Neal’s letter is an attempt to derail the Ute project and “demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the Canadian River Compact and the related 1993 United States Supreme Court Decree.”
“Mr. Neal’s position that recreation at Ute Reservoir ‘trumps’ the municipal and industrial uses expressly authorized by the Canadian River Compact,” the letter states, “is a contravention of the plain language of the Compact and the 1993 Decree…”
The Chandler-Lopez email also refers to the failed Florida development, noting “Mr. Neal has been discredited by local governments throughout the United States for promoting specious and ultimately failed projects at substantial expense to local taxpayers.”
It’s not a new charge. Closer to home, New Mexico’s State Land Office Commissioner Ray Powell says Neal’s empty promises cost taxpayers plenty in a 2008 land swap by his predecessor, now state Public Regulation Commissioner Pat Lyons of Clovis.
Neal and his company, Hot Springs Land Development, received almost 8,000 acres near Truth or Consequences in exchange for 9,000 acres of rural ranch land and $813,524, according to State Land Office Attorney Harry Relkin.
Neal proposed a NASCAR-sanctioned motorplex and raceway, high-end housing development and an expansion of the T or C airport to attract corporate and private jets. The land he got in the swap is near the Spaceport and Neal’s plan was to market to celebrities and other high rollers attracted by the Virgin Galactic Spaceport.
Unlike the Spaceport — completed and scheduled to launch early next year — the Neal development has yet to happen.
Said Powell’s Deputy Commissioner Sunalie Stewart: “They (Lyons and staff) traded away a very real economic opportunity that would have benefited the schools for one that was speculative … not very realistic.”
Lyons could not be reached for comment. But Lyons and Powell are longtime political foes. In response to a Powell letter criticizing the deal, Lyons told the Albuquerque Journal last year,”the Sierra County land exchange was fair and promoted jobs and economic development.”
Neal said there were multiple public hearings prior to the deal’s completion. He filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Truth or Consequences in August. It charges, among other things, the city repeatedly came up with new requirements that eventually killed his plans to expand the airport into a world-class facility.
“Our development,” Neal said, “has gotten nothing but a hard time since we closed on that deal. It’s not easy to do land development in New Mexico. We still own the land, we pay our taxes. We’re trying to move forward.”
During a lengthy telephone interview, Neal said the CCCRC not only questions the relevance of the Whipple study and Ute’s sustainability, but the operations of the Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority. He said public records requests have turned up almost no audits by an agency that has received more than $30 million from state and federal agencies.
“We would like to see a financial audit because they’ve only filed one quarterly report in six years to the New Mexico Finance Authority, said Neal.
Told of Neal’s claim, Ute project Engineer Paul van Gulick provided the CNJ with quarterly reports filed in June and September with the state finance authority and the Bureau of Reclamation. He also provided copies of the water authority’s audits from the years 2011-13.
Neal said his group’s goal is “to identify sustainable water resources for the region. To conserve water. To be a good steward of financial resources.”