Officials concerned water project could affect tourism

Despite an 8 percent increase in visitors to Ute Lake near Logan over the Memorial Day weekend, state and local officials are concerned about misconceptions surrounding the Ute Water Project, and their potential impact on recreational visits to the lake.

The total number of people who visited Ute Lake State Park during the holiday weekend was a little more than 19,000, said Jim Winchester, public information director New Mexico State Parks.

The numbers recorded are about 1,400 more than the 17,600 visitors in 2012.

"The numbers reported may have been higher but it seemed to me that there were less people in the community during the holiday weekend," said T.J. Smith, president Logan/Ute Lake Chamber of Commerce.

No matter what the Memorial Day numbers or appearances say, however, state park and chamber officials are concerned that Ute Lake's summer visitor numbers could drop due to rumors about the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Utility Authority project, which is under construction on the south shore of the lake.

Winchester said state park officials have noted there is a popular misconception that the entire pipeline is completed and is pumping water from the lake. The intake structure, much less the pipeline, is far from completion, Winchester said, and the public should be made aware that the state park and community are still here.

Smith said the chamber and the community have also been made aware of the misconceptions of the pipeline and its status.

"People look at the lake, see the low level and believe the pipe line project is already operational," he said.

Smith said that recently, a large yellow crane was moved onto the intake structure construction site, and the crane could be seen by local residents and lake visitors who were camping across the lake at Ute Lake State Park.

Crews are working on the first phase of the Authority's Ute Water Project an intake structure which is being paid for by $20 million the Authority received from the state's Water Trust Board.

Drilling equipment and controlled blasts have been used to cut through the rock, creating a hole over 50 feet in diameter and 90 feet deep which will house the shaft for the intake structure which is located little more than 180 yards away from neighboring resident's homes.

Winchester said so far they have seen no environmental impact from the construction of the intake structure. He said the authority has installed a silt barrier and buoy line to minimize any impact to the area.

Smith said currently the visitors are still coming to Ute Lake and will continue to come as long as the lake still has water. He said that could change if the water level continues to drop.

Smith said there are many factors contributing to the current low water level, most notably the continued drought conditions and low recharge from the Canadian River. He said while the pipeline is still several years from being operational an added stigma has been created from the misconceptions surrounding the project and its potential to further lower the level of the lake.

"It's the fear of the unknown and the lack of credible information available to the public that has created this stigma," Smith said

Smith said he has seen the impact of this stigma both as the chamber president but also as a partner in Ute Lake Premier Properties. He said it has disrupted the buyer's confidence in investing in the area being it through business or real estate.

QCS Photo: Thomas Garcia

Crew members examine the rock debris created by second controlled blast in a hole being dug in the rock base of the south shore of Ute Lake which will house the authority's intake structure.

Smith said there have been fewer full-time and recreation residential sales in Logan, and while his business still receive inquiries for both residential and business opportunities, there is still a noticeable uncertainty from potential buyers. He said that uncertainty is due in large part to public misconceptions of the Ute Water Project.

"We try to keep a continued presence online through the chamber website and social media sites to help keep the public updated about what is going on," Smith said.

Smith said the Logan and Ute Lake community continues to move forward on a positive note. The chamber held a ribbon cutting on May 25 for the grand re-opening of Every Bloomin Thing, a gardening business, at its new location on 540 Loop. He said the ribbon cutting is a positive sign showing that local business still have their doors open and are hoping for the best for their community.

"Residents and visitors alike talk about the pipeline and how it could impact the community's economy and livelihood," Smith said.

The Ute Water Project has an estimated cost of more than $550 million, with 75 percent expected from federal funding. Once completed, the project is expected to pump water from the Ute Reservoir in Quay County to the member entities of Clovis, Portales, Elida, Texico, Grady, Melrose and Curry and Roosevelt counties.

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