Pipeline authority tries to mend fences
September 7, 2022
SAN JON - Officials with the Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority, the agency in charge of building a nearly 100-mile water pipeline from Ute Lake, conveyed a genial tone during a town hall-style meeting about the project Aug. 29.
However, several Quay County landowners became testy with those officials, especially with the process of the authority gaining easements and how their land would be restored after the project is finished.
The Clovis-based ENMWUA billed the meeting at the San Jon Community Center as "an update to Quay County communities." About 30 people attended, many of them officials from county government, city of Tucumcari or the villages of Logan or San Jon.
The authority seeks to build about 120 miles of water pipeline from Ute Lake in Logan that would serve Clovis, Texico, Portales, Elida and Cannon Air Force Base because of the declining capacity of the Ogallala Aquifer. The pipeline would include a pump near the base of the caprock in southern Quay County to send it up 1,000 feet of elevation.
The pipeline is expected to be finished in 2029.
Orlando Ortega, administrator for the authority, repeatedly told the audience the organization wanted to be respectful to landowners about where the pipeline will run.
"We want to be good stewards and good neighbors," Ortega said, but added the entities involved with the pipeline "don't have a choice" and need a more reliable source of water.
"We'll never get on your property without yours or the court's permission," he added later. "We mean that."
Through last week, the authority has filed 17 lawsuits in Quay County against landowners, seeking access to property where the pipeline likely will traverse.
Paul Gibson told Ortega he was "exasperated" after receiving a letter from the authority that stated he might be taken to court over the easement, just three days after getting a proposed permit letter from it.
Ortega disputed that scenario but added: "If we made an error with you, I apologize."
Ortega said the permanent easements typically would be 85 feet wide. In addition to compensating landowners for a loss in fair market value for what is used in the easement, the authority also would cover any loss of revenue involving the tract and the "cost to cure," which would include seed, weed control and fertilizer.
"We want to work with you," he said. "We apologize for the inconvenience of this pipeline, but it has to be done."
Kameron Barnett, a principal for the Harmon, Barnett & Morris law firm in Clovis that represents the authority, said officials "do the best we can to try to get in touch with people" whose land would be affected. He said that includes driving to the property to find its owners.
Frank Gibson questioned how effective "cost to cure" efforts would be during drought, plus wind possibly blowing away exposed topsoil.
Robin Smith said he disliked the authority gaining access to his property, especially after being told he could not erect a corral or hay barn on the easement area even after construction.
"I don't see anything that benefits me," Smith said. "I got the place paid for, and it's not for sale. It rubs a person the wrong way."
Mike Morris, a Tucumcari native who is Clovis' mayor and chairman of the authority, said his city would continue to employ "all sources" of water even after the pipeline is finished, would use recycled water for irrigation and "retire" some agricultural water use.
When pressed by Logan attorney Warren Frost how much money it would take to get the pipeline up and running, Morris estimated about $800 million, though he acknowledged the authority is "racing against inflation." The authority has received nearly $200 million in federal and state funding for the project.
Morris also said Texico will tap into the pipeline system early before it's fully operational because the village's wells are "drying up."
Wendy Christofferson, senior project manager for Jacobs Engineering in Albuquerque, said the pipeline cannot be laid next to an existing highway. The pipe, which would be 42 inches wide in some areas, is too large to be easily moved if highway officials want to widen the road or add a culvert.
The pipeline, once operational, would take 16,415 acre-feet of water from Ute Lake. Ortega indicated that would have a small effect on the lake.
"We'll never take the lake," he said. "Our intentions are to never hurt that lake."