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Pipeline headed to Eastern New Mexico after decades of work

Portales High School football players practicing on a field that is no longer watered, due to water restrictions. (Megan Myscofski/For Source NM and KUNM)
Several towns will get water from Ute Reservoir after a long fight that can strain communities

PORTALES – As the late July sun was setting on a football field in Eastern New Mexico, several local high school teams were spread out across the grass, running drills ahead of practice matches.

This is a very typical scene across the country in late summer. What was different in Portales, a town of about 12,000, was the field.

“Because of the water situation, we’re not able to water the same way,” Portales High School head football coach Jaime Ramirez said, as he stood on brown grass that would normally be a lush green by now. “Obviously our fields are suffering. It looks like it’s the end of November, not the beginning of August.”

Portales temporarily restricted certain water usage to make up for the hot, dry weather this summer and its impact on the city’s water supply. For Ramirez, this was an easy sacrifice to make. Falls might feel a little bit harder, but they won’t result in worse injuries.

It was easy to accept because if Portales and the surrounding communities do not make changes, there will not be water left to drink, bathe or water the crops surrounding the town as its wells decline.

Portales and its neighbors have relied on the Ogallala Aquifer for generations, but decades of heavy usage is draining that resource and forcing the community to change course.

The stretch of Eastern New Mexico that overlaps with the aquifer provides a third of agricultural cash receipts in the state, and most of the crops grown here feed livestock in the state and over into West Texas.

Orlando Ortega with a photo of the group of people initially involved in the 1990s push to build the pipeline. (Photo by Megan Myscofski/For Source NM and KUNM)

There are nearly 150,000 cows just in this part of New Mexico. Samplings from wells in the area between 2004 and 2015 showed a 7-year average loss of 277,586 acre feet per year.

“Water usage is unsustainable, as extraction far exceeds the minimal amounts of recharge into the aquifer,” reads a 2018 white paper from the Ogallala Water Coordinated Agriculture Project, which is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture.

However, making necessary changes is easier said than done.

Local officials encourage people to cut back, and they’re working on a project that’s been over a half century in the making and will likely finish this decade because the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in 2021. The infrastructure act is one of several laws passed in the last few years to pump money into local projects, including the American Rescue Plan Act and the Inflation Reduction Act.

Orlando Ortega runs the water authority at the helm of the project, which will serve Clovis, Elida, Portales, Texico and Cannon Air Force Base.

He stood above a hatch door in the ground that led to an underground space with giant pipes.

This system, when up and running, will bring in water from the Ute Reservoir, about 80 miles from here, and make the area less reliant on wells that strain the aquifer.

“What great visionaries, you know, geez, and then people along the way that have actually made this possible,” he said of the many people who had envisioned and then advocated for this plan over several decades.

$151 million for clean and safe water through EPA, of that, $57 million for lead pipe and service line replacement, and $39 million for safe drinking water that can also support lead pipe replacement.

He is shy to admit it, but Ortega is actually one of them. He used to be mayor of Portales and was part of a group that lobbied Congress for about a decade before the project was approved in 2009.

Leaders from Portales and its neighboring towns met and commissioned a conceptual design and studies to gauge the feasibility of the project in the late 1990s, though the idea had been around much longer. They realized that with the resources they had, the project wasn’t possible. Then, they began lobbying the New Mexico congressional delegation.

“The urgency has really increased over the last probably 10 years because these member communities are having to drill more wells to keep up with the demand, even though the demand has decreased because of water conservation,” he said.

Orlando Ortega above an underground site connected to the pipeline. (Megan Myscofski/SourceNM and KUNM)

Ortega said the federal government agreed to cover 75% of the project but Congress didn’t actually allocate the funds. Now, the infrastructure act is doing that and speeding this project up by 15 years, despite headwinds from inflation and supply chain issues.

Nathan Dusek is an area manager on the water project. He said as costs like steel and fuel prices go up along with wages, the crews working on this project learned to plan and time projects around those delays.

They also have to move fast.

“You really have to know at the beginning of the job, these are the critical items that we’ve got to start now if we get they’re gonna have to be here on time,” he said.

The American Society of Civil Engineers has released a report card on the country’s infrastructure every four years since 1998 and most years it gets a D.

Brookings Institution Fellow Joe Kane follows the infrastructure act’s water funds. He said the funds are meant to make up for lost time on a really broad set of issues, including replacing lead pipes, bringing down pollution from PFAS, or forever chemicals, and repairing wastewater treatment plants.

“The bill has come due, as I like to say,” he said.

Kane said most projects being funded through the infrastructure act right now are like the pipeline in Eastern New Mexico, where they’ve been in the works, though not moving as fast as locals need.

“I think implicitly they want to prioritize those projects that can get done quickly. There can be impact. There can be that return on investment,” he said.

What that means is a lot of work on the part of locals. Like with a lot of federal funding, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and rural communities usually don’t have the money, staff or know-how to be that squeaky.

And if they do, like the folks at the water authority in Eastern New Mexico, it can still take decades to be heard.

This coverage is a collaboration with KUNM and is part of a series made possible by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Water Desk at the University of Colorado Boulder.