Sen. Bingaman talks with Taoseños on visit north

By Matthew van Buren
Posted 2/22/11

A few days after he announced he would not seek another term in 2012, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) paid a visit to Taos. Among his stops Monday (Feb. 21) was a trip to the Taos Pueblo Senior Center, where the topic of discussion was the Abeyta Water …

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Sen. Bingaman talks with Taoseños on visit north

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A few days after he announced he would not seek another term in 2012, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) paid a visit to Taos. Among his stops Monday (Feb. 21) was a trip to the Taos Pueblo Senior Center, where the topic of discussion was the Abeyta Water Settlement, which was approved by the House and Senate and signed by the president late last year. See the video.

The act had been negotiated for decades before its passage and includes tens of millions of federal and state funding for water rights purchases and water-related projects, including $66 million "to help improve water use efficiency, groundwater management and water quality in the Taos Valley," according to information from Bingaman's office.

Bingaman was greeted by a standing-room-only crowd that included Taos Pueblo Gov. Nelson Cordova, War Chief Edwin Concha, the Taos Town Council and Mayor Darren Córdova.

Cordova said Taos Pueblo is beginning to plan restoration projects focused on the buffalo pasture and on water and wastewater infrastructure, as well as looking at water rights purchases. Cordova said the negotiations were challenging, recalling a time when a mediator was required and once when the group that was trying to negotiate was locked up in the basement of the Office of the State Engineer until an agreement could be reached.

"It was a long, arduous road," he said. "We spent a lot of time bickering." Taos Valley Mutual Domestic Water Associations spokesman Hamilton Brown agreed, saying in the early days of negotiations some positions seemed "uncompromisable," and it took years of listening to each other before the parties learned to work together.

"There were some tough meetings," he said. "A great deal of respect was built among the negotiating parties."

Also present were several others who had been involved in the negotiations, including John Painter, of the El Prado Water and Sanitation District, Taos Valley Acequia Association President Palemón Martínez and Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael Connor.

"He was instrumental in developing the legislation," Bingaman said of Connor. "He deserves much credit."

Connor said all settlements move from frustration, when parties are "talking past each other," to excitement when they reach an understanding to the rewarding part, when the settlement can start to be implemented. He congratulated the various parties for being able to work past their differences, but he warned that crafting legislation is the easy part, and implementation can be challenging.

"We're ready to roll," he said. Bingaman addressed the group briefly, saying Taos Pueblo "deserves great credit" for its persistence, also asking those involved to appreciate that much of the difficult work is still ahead. He said implementation can be a "serious challenge."

"Writing it down is the easy part," he said.

Natural gas outage

Bingaman's Monday visit also included a stop at Town Hall, where he discussed the recent natural gas outage that affected more than 28,000 customers with leaders from around Taos County.

Among those gathered were the Taos Town Council and Mayor Darren Córdova, Taos County Manager Jake Caldwell, Questa Mayor Esther García and Red River Mayor Linda Calhoun. Córdova said he believes the New Mexico Gas Co. is directly responsible for the outage, which resulted in lost days of work, repair bills resulting from pipes that froze and burst and lost business revenue.

He said the fact that it took the company seven days to restore gas amounts to negligence on the part of New Mexico Gas Co., and he said municipalities' budgets will also see the impacts from a week's worth of lost tax collections. Córdova asked Bingaman if federal assistance will be available, as the state's hands are tied by the New Mexico Constitution's anti-donation clause when it comes to compensating private businesses or individuals.

Bingaman said he has been in discussions with a variety of organizations and businesses, including New Mexico Gas Co., the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, pipeline executives, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, but information about accountability has been hard to come by.

"We didn't really get answers," he said.

Bingaman suggested those seeking relief look to the New Mexico Gas Company, which has set aside $1 million and is accepting claims, adding that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is also looking into the situation.

"FEMA has some authority to provide assistance, but it's pretty limited," he said. "Those are the options that occur to me."

He added that the Small Business Association, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the USDA Rural Housing Service are also poised to help people affected by the outage. Bingaman said he hopes New Mexico leaders can "get to the bottom of this failure," and that more precautions and redundancies can be put in place to prevent a similar outage in the future.

"I think we can get that done," he said. García said the New Mexico Gas Company's $1 million fund is insufficient, adding that the company should have been better-prepared for such an occurrence.

"We should've been notified ahead of time," she said. "I think there was a lack of communication."

Calhoun said it may be counterproductive to seek much relief from New Mexico Gas Co., as additional costs to the company may just lead to further rate increases. "They're going to pass it on to the consumer," she said. According to information from New Mexico Gas Co., as of Feb. 15 it had received nearly 800 claims and fielded more than 1,000 phone calls. (For information about its relief fund, visit nmgco.com.)

Town attorney Allen Ferguson said those seeking relief can also file a motion to intervene with the Public Regulation Commission, saying it is unlikely the state will offer a remedy but the more people who file, the bigger the "political impact" will be.

The deadline to file such a motion is Feb. 28, with a hearing likely to follow in May. The New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration's (DFA) Local Government Division is offering assistance to low-income state residents whose homes were damaged during the natural gas outage, "making $1.1 million available through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant program," according to a DFA release.

Eligible residents can receive as much as $2,000 for repairs to broken pipes, water heaters, furnaces and water-damaged walls. For information, contact the North Central Economic Development District in Santa Fe at (505) 827-7313. A member of Gov. Susana Martinez' staff — Cyndi Montoya, director of constituent services — is holding office hours in the Executive Department of Taos' Town Hall. She will be at Town Hall, Thursday (Feb. 24) from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. to speak with constituents face-to-face or by phone, and she will be in Taos again March 3.

To schedule an appointment with Montoya, call (575) 751-2002. She can also be reached by e-mail at cyndi.montoya@state.nm.us.

mvanburen@taosnews.com

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