LOGAN – Pricey homes line the shores of Ute Lake in eastern New Mexico and speed boats skim the water, but a huge construction project on the reservoir’s south shore is getting all the attention this summer.
Workers broke ground in March on a $15 million intake station, paid for largely with state money, intended to divert up to 16,450 acre-feet from the lake each year.
If the project’s supporters have their way, Ute Lake water will supply a proposed $550 million pipeline to serve thirsty communities in Curry and Roosevelt counties.
Federal law calls on the Bureau of Reclamation to provide 75 percent of funding for the 151-mile pipeline, expected to require at least 15 years to build depending on funding availability.
The intake station, which is the first step, includes an intake pipe 50 feet deep and blasted through bedrock. It has panicked residents and driven down property values at Ute Lake and nearby Logan, residents say.
“In the process of creating that facility, they have destroyed confidence in resort property at Ute Lake,” said Bunny Terry, a co-owner of Ute Lake Premier Properties. “It has been devastating to our economy because there is a perception that (the pipeline) will happen.”
Supporters say the pipeline is vital for the survival of Clovis, Portales and other communities that now depend entirely on dwindling groundwater supplies.
“Our water situation is very dire,” said Gayla Brumfield, chairwoman of the Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority, an entity formed in 2010 to oversee the pipeline project.
The amount of water produced by wells has declined for years in Curry and Roosevelt counties, said Brumfield, a former Clovis mayor. A utility that provides water for Clovis has more than doubled the number of wells to 64 in the past decade only to maintain water production at constant levels, she said.
The pipeline is also key to the future of Cannon Air Force Base with its 5,000 military and civilian jobs and $340 million annual economic impact, or about a third of Clovis’s economy.
Brumfield also contends good reservoir management will preserve Ute Lake for other uses.
“It doesn’t do anyone any good if we go in there and drain the lake,” she said.
New Mexico created Ute Lake in 1962 by damming the Canadian River near Logan in Quay County.
Logan’s 1,024 year-round residents are joined on weekends and holidays by up to 30,000 visitors from Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, said T.J. Smith, president of the Logan Chamber of Commerce.
The resort also draws an ever-larger number of New Mexicans, because of low lake levels statewide, Smith said. “We have less water and more visitors,” he said.
Of the approximately 700 homes clustered around Ute Lake, some 80 percent are seasonal resort properties, many of which have out-of-state owners, Smith estimated.
Sales of lakefront lots and existing homes have dwindled almost to nothing, which Smith attributes to both a slow economy and fears about the lake’s future posed by the proposed pipeline.
Reservoir storage at Ute Lake has declined rapidly in recent years, from about 190,000 acre feet in 2010 to 118,000 acre-feet on Aug. 6, according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s national water information system.
The proposed pipeline would pump Ute Lake water over the 4,500-foot rim of the Caprock escarpment to communities now dependent on dwindling groundwater supplies tapped from the Ogallala aquifer.
An environmental assessment for the Ute pipeline published by the Bureau of Reclamation in 2011 found that well capacities have diminished for years in Curry and Roosevelt counties. Those counties, with a combined 2010 population of about 68,000, “will not be able to pump from the Ogallala aquifer within the next 30 years,” it predicts.
The pipeline project gathered momentum in 2009 when then-Sen. Jeff Bingaman included a Ute pipeline bill into an omnibus public lands act signed that year by President Obama.
The state has provided about $30 million for the project to date compared with about $4 million from federal sources, Brumfield estimated.
The 2014 Bureau of Reclamation budget contains a $649,000 appropriation for the Ute pipeline.
Opponents say the intake pumping station at Ute Lake is a waste of state money and demand an immediate halt to construction. They contend the federal government is unlikely to appropriate the estimated $550 million needed to build the pipeline.
The funding “has been authorized but not appropriated,” said Greg Neal, a lobbyist for an opponents’ group, Concerned Citizens of Curry and Roosevelt Counties.
Nor have municipalities considered cheaper and more practical alternatives, such as purchasing water rights from agricultural users, he said.
Irrigated agriculture accounts for about 96 percent of all ground water diversions in Curry and Roosevelt counties, according to the Bureau of Reclamation’s environmental assessment.
Neal said he has identified area landowners willing to negotiate the sale of water rights to the seven municipalities that compose the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Association.
“I can demonstrate there’s an interest in sitting down and negotiating the sale or lease of water rights so that Clovis and Portales and the other members of the authority can have sustainable water for the next 50 years,” Neal said.
Brumfield expressed confidence that the federal government will fund the pipeline and that it will be completed within 20 years.
“They authorized it and they will fund it,” she said.
Brumfield said the association plans to purchase water rights from agricultural landowners, which she described as a “good short-term solution” to the region’s water needs.
The association plans to build within 10 years an “interim pipeline,” connecting the communities of Curry and Roosevelt counties, that it will use to distribute water purchased from landowners, she said.
But water from Ute Lake is needed to ensure the long-term needs of the counties, she said.
“Buying water rights is not the answer” because it doesn’t address the inevitable depletion of the Ogallala aquifer, Brumfield said.
“We could buy every water right in Curry County and Roosevelt County, it still doesn’t guarantee that we will have water there, because we’re still on the Ogallala,” she said.