SANTA TERESA – As vital as drinking water and sewage systems are to constituents, telling a compelling story about infrastructure can easily lose them in a fog of budget figures and construction language.
While visiting the site of a future arsenic treatment plant in one of southern New Mexico’s unincorporated communities Tuesday, US Sen. Martin Heinrich said seeing the importance is as easy as turning on a tap.
“You have not only reliable clean water but then you have backup for when the old well goes down,” he said during a visit to the Lower Rio Grande Public Water Works Authority office in Berino, 20 miles south of Las Cruces.
With his fellow Democrat, US Sen. Ben Ray Luján, Heinrich made three infrastructure-related visits to the county for briefings on rural water systems, the county jetport and economic development for the border region including ports of entry in El Paso and Santa Teresa along with Ciudad Juarez and the state of Chihuahua in Mexico.
In the morning, the senators donned hard hats to visit an arsenic filtration system site under construction in Berino, next to the water authority’s office near Stern Drive. Officials from the Department of Agriculture’s rural development section, which offers grants and loans for local economic development, infrastructure and other essential services — as well as county officials and state legislators — were also present for the visit.
The authority is a governmental entity formed in 2006 serving over a dozen colonias across 100 square miles south of Las Cruces, helping to connect 5,000 residents of unincorporated communities in the southern part of the county to water service.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law signed by President Joe Biden last year directs an anticipated $355 million over five years for New Mexico water infrastructure.
Besides the arsenic treatment plan, the Lower Rio Grande PWWA is drilling a new groundwater well in Berino, building a wastewater project in the Mesquite-Brazito area and partnering with Doña Ana County on sewage treatment and building capacity to regionalize local water systems in the event of a failure in one service area.
“When you have one piece of infrastructure that goes down, it can be absolutely devastating,” Heinrich said, “and tying all of this together and finding the funding to make these things work ― it’s a game changer.”
Jetport to build new hangars
Later in the morning, Heinrich appeared with county and state officials at the Doña Ana County International Jetport in Santa Teresa to tout a $2.25 million federal investment in the expansion of the jetport facilities, which will help fund infrastructure to support 11 new private hangars, according to diagrams presented. The senator and other officials took part in a short groundbreaking ceremony.
“We want this port of entry to have everything that checks the boxes for all of the commercial partners who may want to be here,” Heinrich said. “I think having aviation really serve this port of entry well is an incredibly important piece of that.”
Last month, the Doña Ana County Commission approved a land lease contract between the county and Burrell Aviation Doña Ana, LLC, the first such agreement at the jetport, to build the capacity to receive and distribute air cargo.
“Having aviation resources — on top of rail, on top of the trucking resources — we really create an intermodal system that attracts commerce from all over the southern borderlands,” Heinrich said.
Jetport Manager Bill Provance said the new hangars would expand the capacity at the jetport by about 126 aircraft.
Heinrich also said he supported federal funds for a feasibility study to look at the future development of the port of entry.
Luján joined the event late but gave some remarks praising the development of the jetport and Heinrich’s work to secure funding.
Border port of import
From there, the senators went to the offices of the Border Industrial Association, six miles north of the Santa Teresa Port of Entry, for a luncheon and briefing from state and local economic development officials as well as a counterpart from Chihuahua on economic development efforts and Funding needs in an area with one of the busiest ports of entry at the US-Mexico border.
BIA president Jerry Pacheco updated the gathering on extensive growth in the region’s industrial base along with year-over-year growth in international exports of 46 percent. Industrial space is now at a premium in Santa Teresa, to the point that a second natural gas line had to be installed and Pacheco said local wastewater systems need to quadruple in capacity to support the growth.
“The need is dire,” Doña Ana County Manager Fernando Macias said of the funding that would be required at state and federal levels to support current and expected expansion as the Union Pacific railroad builds out its facilities and the Santa Teresa Port of Entry increases its importance in the region with facilities for oversized and heavier industrial cargo as well as hazardous materials.
The scope of the investments required, Macias warned, would extend beyond what could be financed locally and through state capital outlay.
A new highway connecting the port area to Sunland Park and El Paso is in the design phase, with costs estimated up to $50 million with the aim of reducing commute times. New Mexico Border Authority president Marco Grajeda said an aggressive construction schedule is planned with the hope of opening the route by the end of 2024.
Luján said he was surprised at the extent of the investments needed and vowed to enhance his attention on the region while calling for more communication between the coalition of trade and government entities and federal agencies. “More collaboration is needed. … More coordination will bring about better outcomes,” he said.
Heinrich said the next five years would be pivotal for New Mexico’s ports, especially at Santa Teresa, to position themselves as an alternative to crowded conditions at El Paso’s port as well as political fallout from Texas governor Greg Abbott’s policy earlier in 2022 of requiring additional inspections of commercial vehicles crossing the border, a move that clogged highways and damaged trade into Texas.
Algernon D’Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, [email protected] or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.
Michael McDevitt is a city and county government reporter for the Sun News. He can be reached at 575-202-3205, [email protected] or @MikeMcDTweets on Twitter.