By Robin Fornoff
CMI Projects Editor
A recent call for an independent study of the much-vaunted Ute Water Project has two key players swirling in a pool of political rhetoric.
Clovis Mayor David Lansford and former Mayor Gayla Brumfield, once friends, now passionate political enemies, stand on opposite sides of the shore when it comes to Ute Lake and how the proposed pipeline would affect a body of water that has become an important economic and recreation resource for neighbors to the north in Quay County.
Lansford says he just isn’t sure the lake can satisfy the insatiable thirst for water in Clovis and the other communities across eastern New Mexico that have bought into the project.
Brumfield, who chairs the regional water authority charged with building the pipeline, views the call for a new study as a political tactic by Lansford, “and others,” a veiled attempt to kill the $500 million project she has worked the last five years to turn into reality.
At stake could be the very future of Clovis, Portales and much of the rest of the region. Water is the fuel that drives the economic and social engines of these communities. And the clock is ticking on finding a sustainable source of clean water to keep those engines humming.
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If the situation continues without change, most projections by state and federal geologists and engineers predict the region will face a critical water shortage in about 10 years.
Brumfield says already almost two dozen homeowners just south of Clovis are having to truck in water to meet daily demands; their wells that dip into the Ogallala aquifer deep below the red dirt are dry as a stone.
Officials at Cannon Air Force Base, totally dependent on wells and the single biggest money machine in the area’s economy, have “expressed concern,” Brumfield says and Lansford agrees, after recently completing a study on its future water needs.
EPCOR, the utility supplying water to Clovis, says it has been forced in recent years to more than double the amount of wells it depends on to meet demand.
The problem, according to Brumfield and Lansford, is the Ogallala. It is the underground fresh water sea and sole source of water for communities in Curry and Roosevelt counties.
The Ogallala is being depleted at a rate far faster than it can recharge, or replenish itself, with rain or snow melt that gradually weeps into it from the ground above.
Recent lack of moisture across the region and state has magnified the problem.
Most studies conclude about 95 percent of the water being drained from the aquifer is used in agriculture — like Cannon, another huge cog that keeps the area’s economic gears spinning. It is a dilemma on which both Lansford and Brumfield agree also presents an opportunity, at least in the short term, to prevent a water crisis from turning the area into a series of ghost towns rattling in ceaseless winds of the High Plains.
Both see purchasing water from farmers and ranchers as one step to prevent a crisis. It is their approach that differs and is deepening the political chasm that separates them.
Lansford sees it as the highest priority, which can sustain the region beyond the next decade. He also wants to explore other options for obtaining water rather than relying heavily on completion of the Ute Water Project. He says he has doubts about the studies to date, most relying on data amassed 20 years ago.
A new study, he says, would either put those doubts to rest, or provide a basis for revising the Ute Water Project or at least determining if it is cost effective.
Brumfield and the Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority see purchasing or leasing water from agricultural wells as more an interim step to meeting the area’s water needs until the pipeline can be built from Ute in another 15 to 20 years. Leases for groundwater would also be used as a backup should an established drought management plan kick in and force member communities to stop drawing their full reserve from the lake.
Brumfield’s plan is to build an $80 million pipeline over the next 10 years. That pipeline would connect leased agricultural wells to communities that are members of the ENMWUA.
Brumfield calls it Phase 2 of the total Ute Water Project, estimated to cost $500 million.
But all this depends on funding, 75 percent of which Brumfield and the water authority are looking to the president and the Congress to provide. Because although Congress has authorized the Ute Water Project, it has yet to provide the cash needed to complete it.
A $14 million intake the water authority is about to complete at Ute Lake is being paid for with a combination of community member contributions and grants from the state and federal government of about $33 million.
Brumfield recently returned from Washington, and is optimistic. She said during almost a week of lobbying, the water authority secured a commitment from the federal Office of Management and Budget to request $6.6 million each year for the next 10 years, beginning in 2015, for Phase 2 of the project from the president’s budget.
If the promise becomes reality, Brumfield said it will provide $60.6 million — seed money to convince the Legislature and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez to provide another 15 percent of the cash needed to complete the $80 million interim pipeline. Local communities would come up with the remaining 10 percent or $8 million, she said.
Lansford notes there are still no solid commitments from federal sources to pay the 85 percent of costs for either the $80 million interim pipeline or the estimated $500 million needed to complete the entire Ute Water Project and eventually pipe fresh water from the lake to member communities.
Lansford also said he doubts the $500 million estimate is accurate since it was made at least seven years ago and has yet to be re-evaluated at a time when construction costs continue to increase with each passing year.
Lansford said he has serious doubts Ute Lake can ever provide all of the area’s water demands, particularly in times of drought, without draining or forever damaging the lake.
It was why, Lansford said, he worked to convene the Ute Water Commission last week — a board charged with reservation and purchase of water from Ute that hasn’t met in about two years — and called for a new study after being elected chairman.
It is Lansford’s call for a new study while she was in Washington lobbying the area’s Congressional delegation that has so enraged Brumfield.
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Though not opposed to another study, Brumfield sees any new study as sending a conflicting message to Congress and the president at a critical time — that the community isn’t 100 percent behind the Ute Water Project.
“I don’t want the eye taken off the ball for this project,” Brumfield said Friday.
“If the (Interstate Stream Commission) wants to go and do a study, go do a study,” Brumfield said.
The ISC is a board representing New Mexico and surrounding states that governs water levels at Ute Lake.
“To me, in my personal opinion, it’s not going to change the outcome,” said Brumfield. “If they want to do it, go do it. But we’re not going to halt the project.”
Brumfield contends there have been five studies since 1994. All have concluded the 24,000 acre-feet of water a year the Ute Water Project communities are allowed to take is sustainable without damaging the lake
Lansford, however, points out issues with what Brumfield and Ute Project Manager Paul van Gulick say are studies on a par with the original 1994 report — called the Whipple Report — prepared at the request of the ISC.
Lansford contends studies conducted in 2006 and this year by CH2M Hill Engineers can hardly be considered independent studies. CH2M Hill is the contractor and developer for the Ute Water Project.
Additionally, another study Brumfield and van Gulick point to isn’t a study at all but a letter from Bruce Thomson, professor of civil engineering at the University of New Mexico, who “concurs with the technical basis for CH2M Hill’s work,” they said.
Thomson said the statement being attributed to him needs clarification.
“I have very quickly reviewed their work and I’m impressed with their analysis,” Thomson said, adding, “I have not, however, seen a conclusion from those guys.
“It means I have seen their analysis and they’ve got some scenarios that show there is plenty of water there and some that there is not,” Thomson said. “But I have not seen a conclusion from them regarding what the sustainable yield from that lake is.”
Thomson said at the beginning of each school year for the last three years, he and his class put together an engineering model for the Ute Lake project using information available to the public. He stressed it is a class project, not a study. He and the students allow for a more generous inflow of water to the lake than the 1994 Whipple Report, on which the Ute project is based.
Each year the students reach the same conclusion, he said.
“It appears,” Thomson said, “the sustainable yield (from Ute Lake) is not nearly as much as the studies that were done by the Interstate Stream Commission back in the 1990s.”
Thomson said he is unequivocally convinced of one thing when it comes to the Ute Water Project:
“I think that the idea is that it really needs some independent analysis to determine if the sustainable yield is a good one,” Thomson said. “There’s more data available now than there was 20 years ago. … I think now would be the perfect time for a new, independent study.”
Said Lansford: “Groundwater is a matter of the right price, gets you the water you need in the short and intermediate term. I think it’s really, really important that we allocate sufficient energy toward our short and intermediate source of water supply and that is going to have to come from groundwater.”
And Lansford said there are other water sources not yet explored beyond leasing agricultural wells. He noted Amarillo has a 130-year water supply and said recent conversations with officials representing the system providing water in Amarillo and Lubbock indicated a willingness to help at least Clovis join their system.
Lubbock already draws some of its drinking water from wells in southern Curry and northern Roosevelt counties, pulling it from the Ogallala Aquifer.
Lansford said his goal is to assure at least a 30- to 40-year water supply for Clovis. It would be a buffer to allow the Ute project to be completed over the next 15 to 20 years, if a new and independent study shows member communities can take their allotment without damaging the lake.
“If the numbers continue to show that it’s (Ute Lake) sustainable, then obviously we want to purchase what we’ve been reserving,” Lansford said. “But I don’t think we ought to put all of our energies into the Ute Water Project.”
A new study, Lansford said, should quell all concerns — at Cannon, for any new industry looking to locate in the area and for those in Quay County who worry their neighbors to the south will drain the lake.
Ute Water Commission members have estimated a new study would cost about $50,000. Brumfield said that number is closer to $200,000 or $300,000.
Lansford said his call for study “is not a political thing.”
“If water supply becomes a political thing,” Lansford said, “we’ve got a major character issue. Either with me or anybody else that wants to use water as a political tool.
“I have a responsibility as mayor to give the community the most accurate information I can give them on every policy decision that’s made and to not base my remarks or my opinions off of other people’s opinions. I ought to be basing them off of facts as much as I possibly can and I want the facts.
“I want an updated study to the firm annual yield analysis that was done 20 years ago. If it comes back at 24,000 acre-feet a year, I’m going to be tickled to death. If it comes back at 16,000 acre-feet a year, we need to rethink what’s going on. Because $500 million for 16,000 acre-feet a year is questionable. ”
Said Brumfield, “I am totally convinced that this project is the main piece of our water portfolio. I think it is sustainable.
“I realize that everybody can say go get studies and everything, and go get them. … I don’t think it’s going to change the outcome. No other study ever has,” she said.
“I have no vested interest in this except for my love and support of this community,” Brumfield said. “I have a business here and I don’t want to run out of water. I want Cannon Air Force Base to be here. We’ve studied it to death but we can do another study. If that’s what the ISC wants to do. It’s not going to change the outcome. And it’s not going to take my focus off of moving forward.”