Water authority commits up to $58,000 on attorney
November 22, 2020
ELIDA — Following a lengthy back-and-forth over the parameters, Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority members agreed Thursday to commit up to $58,000 on Colorado attorney Peter Nichols for help facilitating a town hall and land trust to aid in an anticipated federal program to protect groundwater.
The News participated in the meeting via telephone due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Authority Chair David Lansford said through the Readiness and Environmental Protection Initiative, the area could receive up to $30 million in federal dollars to incentivize landowners surrounding Cannon Air Force Base to end irrigation farming and reduce water demands on the paleochannel.
Lansford believed there would need to be a body to keep those easements in perpetuity, educate the public and help expand the realm of conversation in Curry and Roosevelt counties.
“What we need to do,” Lansford said, “in my opinion, is fund the creation of this land trust.”
The Curry County Commission had agreed to provide up to $30,000 toward such an effort in its Tuesday meeting, and Commissioner Chet Spear joined the meeting by telephone.
Spear said hiring Nichols to help the process seemed like a worthwhile investment against the total federal injection.
“I can’t count how many meetings and summits and coffee shop discussions we’ve had regarding water and the paleochannel,” Spear said. “We all go to these meetings and we all say we’re ready to go ... and nothing gets done. With the REPI program, we have an extraordinary opportunity. We’ve had expert after expert after expert tell us the paleochannel’s levels are going to be depleted within five to 10 to 15 years, and those estimates are five years old. If we don’t secure water in the paleochannel now ... this paleochannel may be at a point where we can’t use the water ... long before the Ute pipeline will be completed.”
Member Jim Lucero had concerns that there were no assurances all entities would work together, and Elida Mayor Durward Dixon said he would like to see a meeting with landowners involved.
“It seems like a lot is happening in this project, and that’s well and good,” Lucero said. “But there hasn’t been a stakeholder’s meeting. It seems like we’re putting the cart in front of the horse a lot. I think this is a good thing, but I have concerns.”
Lansford said he shared Lucero’s concerns, and that he has been clear that a landowner in one county shouldn’t insist water they sell stays only in that county. For many of the questions that remained Lansford said Nichols, who has previously worked with the city of Clovis, had the experience to answer those questions and guide entities through the land trust process.
Lucero asked why the authority needed to make a budget adjustment for the entire expense of hiring Nichols when Curry County had already offered to pay half the expense. Lansford responded there was no guarantee of even spending the budgeted amount, noting, “if we don’t like the legal advice we’re getting, we’re not obligated (any further).”
In other business at the Thursday meeting:
• The authority approved a long-term finance plan, a projection made every two years.
The plan, Erik Haragan of RBC Capital Markets said, presume member contributions will remain mostly flat over the next five to six years, with Clovis and Portales absorbing the contributions from former members Curry County and Melrose.
The authority anticipates groundwater sales beginning in 2026 and surface water in 2036, based on estimated dates for completion of the interim groundwater project and the eventual connection of the pipeline system to the Ute Reservoir in Quay County.
At that point, member contributions are expected to grow by about 3% annually until an eight-year phase-out starts in 2037. Estimated costs are $2.44 per 1,000 gallons, up from the current total of $2.06.
“When you get out into the later years once the system is operational,” Haragan said, “the costs to operate the system far outweigh the debt service.”
Lansford called the projection good news in that the member contributions aren’t likely to increase in coming years.
• The authority approved an easement acquisition plan. Without going overboard in description, authority members said the new policy is more favorable to landowners in the bargaining process.
• Rex Stall of the Interstate Streams Commission reported the Ute Reservoir storage was at 149,400 acre feet as of Thursday and 2020 rain at the dam totaled 6.82 inches.
• State consultant Joe Thompson said a New Mexico special legislative session on Tuesday and Wednesday would deal with small loan items, along with broadband and unemployment. He admitted uncertainty about the 2021 regular session, especially if Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is appointed to presumptive President Elect Joe Biden’s cabinet.
• Federal consultant John Ryan said plenty is unresolved in Congress following the election due to President Donald Trump challenging many state’s elections and two runoff races in Georgia that would determine party control of the Senate.
“There was some hope a lame duck session would create some atmosphere of cooperation,” Ryan said, “but that isn’t the case.”
Ryan noted Lujan Grisham is on Biden’s transition team and has a chance at a cabinet secretary position. Tom Udall, who declined to run for a third Senate term, is being floated as Secretary of the Interior and Rep. Deb Haaland is also being discussed for a cabinet position.