By Robin Fornoff
CMI Projects Editor
Almost 20 years ago, engineer John J. Whipple spent several nights camped out on the shores of Ute Lake to get a first-hand look and feel for one of New Mexico’s largest bodies of water and the community of Logan surrounding the reservoir.
Whipple was gathering data to eventually write a 16-page document long considered the last and most definitive word on the lake, a study now at the center of a whirling controversy.
The Whipple Study, the oft-cited roadmap for the Ute Water Project, is either dead on or in desperate need of updating, depending on which faction takes center stage in this continuing drama.
Whipple, now retired and living in Rio Rancho, is oblivious to it all.
“I really haven’t followed any of it,” said Whipple. And does Whipple think two decades later it is time for an update or new study?
“What’s the purpose? I’m not sure what another study would do except maybe come up with revised estimates,” Whipple said. “I can’t really tell you it would be worth it to do another one.”
Not good news for folks like Clovis Mayor David Lansford, Tucumcari City Commissioner Robert Lumpkin and Greg Neal, spokesman and consultant for a group calling itself Concerned Citizens of Curry and Roosevelt Counties. All have pushed hard for a new or updated study of the reservoir much like the one Whipple assembled.
Nor is what Whipple has to say definitive for the other side — folks like former Clovis Mayor Gayla Brumfield and the agency she chairs, the Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority. Though he says he doesn’t think the numbers will change significantly, Whipple stopped short of saying there is or isn’t a need for a new study.
The ENMUA is the agency charged with completing a pipeline to pump water from Ute Lake to its seven-member communities. They include Clovis, Curry County, Portales, Texico, Melrose, Elida and Grady.
Brumfield considers calls for a new study an underhanded attempt to kill the project authorized but not yet funded by Congress. She says any new study would send the wrong message to Congressional leaders the authority has been lobbying for the $500 million needed to finish the project.
Lumpkin and Neal say the water authority is depending on out-dated data that hasn’t taken into account the most recent drought, among other things. To proceed with the project is a threat to a lake whose waters pump a significant chunk of change into the economy of Logan and Quay County through recreation and real estate, according to Lumpkin.
“It’s kind of a similar situation to the San Juan river in northwest New Mexico,” said Whipple. “Where you have a dam built for water supply purposes…for the city of Albuquerque.”
Over the years recreational interest and demand has materialized, said Whipple, adding, “As that happens…then the people living there who benefit from construction of the dam, now they kind of want to keep the water.”
“That’s political,” said Whipple.
Any study of water flowing into Ute Lake and how much can be taken without turning it into a mud hole, according to Whipple, is based on science, not politics.
For his study, Whipple used 50 years of weather and geographic data documented by various state and federal agencies. His conclusions are the guide the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission used to set limits on the amount of water that can be taken from the Ute Lake reservoir.
Whipple notes there have been two studies since his. Those studies completed by the engineering firm for the Ute Water Project, CH2M Hill, reach many of the same conclusions as the Whipple Study.
Whipple said he wasn’t familiar enough with the subsequent studies to address them. He added, however, that while some figures may change in any new study, he isn’t sure his conclusion would change — that Ute Lake is a sustainable resource for supplying water to the seven communities if used correctly.
Whipple said his study figured in the effects of drought. He said it was always assumed pumping from Ute would be limited during droughts and the seven communities would turn to groundwater wells to supplement their needs.
“I think they are in a fortunate position out there,” said Whipple. “To be able to take surface water (from Ute Lake) and relax pumping of groundwater and save it for times when they have a drought. There are not a lot of places in New Mexico that fortunate.
“But really it seems to me it’s a political deal as far as the communities and what’s going on,” Whipple said. “How they want to look at their water supply portfolio and manage things in a way to conserve their resources and limit their risk.
“I did my study,” said Whipple, “and I certainly am comfortable with it.”