City of Marfa and Chinati Foundation work together to address aging sewer system 

City of Marfa and Chinati Foundation work together to address aging sewer system 

MARFA — For years, the three-and-a-half miles of century-old clay sewer pipes beneath the Chinati Foundation have fallen into a state of disrepair and have even begun to leak. There are few signs above ground other than a crown of weeds above the old lines, but neighbors worry that conditions could take a turn for the worse. Despite a protracted back-and-forth with the City of Marfa and the state agency responsible for environmental safety, a timeline for the necessary repairs is still inconclusive.

For the Chinati Foundation, the solution isn’t as simple as calling the donors that flock to Marfa each October for the museum’s major fundraiser. While the lines are located on private property — and the responsibility of sewer maintenance generally falls to property owners — the Chinati Foundation’s miles of underground sewer pipes receive waste from around 40 city customers who live on South Yale Street, also known as Officer’s Row. 

Figuring out how to address the issue has summoned complicated questions about the relationship between the two entities and the future of development in Marfa. “Clearly, the cost to replace three and a half miles of lines for 40 customers isn’t an economic option for any prudent utility,” wrote Patty Akers, a lawyer retained by the City of Marfa, in an email to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) on October 22, 2020. “Combined with the legal inability to bring these lines into compliance makes it impossible for the city to respond in a conventional manner.” 

According to the TCEQ, the responsibility of repairing the pipes falls to the City of Marfa, which was handed a notice of violation by the agency on September 25, 2020. Since then, the city has been granted numerous extensions. The paper trail suggests the city has been treated with leniency by the state due to the uniqueness of the situation, but water quality violations of this kind can carry fines of up to $25,000 a day should the agency decide to crack down. 

“Since wastewater is collected at South Yale Street and routed through the Chinati Foundation property,” the official violation reads, “the system of collection for wastewater located on Chinati Foundation’s property is considered to be a part of the City of Marfa’s wastewater collection system.” At an October 13, 2020, council meeting, the city council contracted the Presidio-based engineering firm Kleinman Consultants to review their wastewater collection system and ensure it met state standards.

The foundation and the city have been in correspondence about fixing the problem for years. In 2018, Chinati’s former director of planning and preservation, Peter Stanley, had a conversation with former City Manager Terry Brechtel and City Attorney Teresa Todd about the state of the wastewater system on the foundation’s campus. The three decided to draft a “letter of understanding” that would be presented to the city council in hopes of gathering more information about granting easements for maintenance. “We started that process, but nothing happened after that,” Stanley recalled. 

In June 2020, with the signs of wear “substantially worse,” Stanley contacted the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Investigator Joseph Miller began looking into the complaint. He reached out to Todd to ask if the system underneath Chinati was used as a conveyance for other City of Marfa customers. Todd consulted former public works directors Robert Silva and Jeff Boyd for more background. 

Silva and Boyd confirmed that the City of Marfa had never used the Chinati Foundation’s system for conveyance. “[It] was a separate self-contained water and sewer system that predated any city water or sewer infrastructure in that area,” Todd wrote back to Miller in an email dated July 30, 2020. “Rather than conveying sewage through Chinati lines, the City actually receives sewage from Chinati and private landowners at Fort D.A. Russell.” 

Throughout her correspondence with the state, which The Big Bend Sentinel obtained through a public records request, Todd reminded officials of the unique history of the sewer lines beneath the Chinati Foundation, which was once a military installation. Fort D.A. Russell — and the hard-working sewer lines beneath it — date back to the Mexican Revolution, when fears of cross-border violence led the U.S. military to take an interest in the humble railroad town of Marfa.

According to Mona Garcia, who played a major role in getting Fort D.A. Russell registered as a National Historic Site, local ranchers pitched in to pull together land for a fort. Garcia currently owns and operates a museum out of Building 98, the former officer’s club. She estimates that her sewer line, which was part of the original self-contained fort system, was constructed sometime between 1910 and 1920. 

Neighborhood lore alleges that German prisoners of war held at Fort D.A. Russell built Chinati’s sewer system, but Garcia doubts that rumor — the P.O.W.s didn’t arrive until 1943. In its heyday, there were over 9,000 men stationed at the fort, necessitating 3.5 miles of clay pipe to deal with the wastewater of thousands of men living in close quarters. When the fort was decommissioned in 1946, there wasn’t a need to keep the pipes up to serve that many people. 

As a result, the sewer system didn’t have its first major upgrade until the early 1990s. According to email correspondence between Todd and the TCEQ, at that time, the sewer system was discharging wastewater into Alamito Creek. The state intervened and required the city to construct a lift station to receive sewage from Chinati and customers inside the former military base and route it toward the sewage treatment plant. In October 1991, the city filed a permit to expand its wastewater treatment plant, and the lift station was constructed shortly thereafter with funding from the Rio Grande Council of Governments. 

The Dia Foundation had sold the 340-acre property to Donald Judd just a few years prior, in 1987. Judd then began realizing his vision of “a concept of a museum in which art, buildings, and the natural environment form a unity,” according to the Chinati Foundation’s website. During the early ‘90s sewer system overhaul, the Chinati Foundation was up and running, but nowhere near as busy as it is today. A handful of its signature installations had yet to be built. In the days before the Airbnb boom, coming to Chinati was a much more solitary experience. “Since the art would never be exhibited in big-city museums, people wanting to see and experience it would have to make a pilgrimage to Marfa,” Todd explained in an email to TCEQ dated July 17, 2020. 

In a town where “What Would Donald Judd Do?” is a popular bumper sticker slogan, that question still looms for many — even so far as to guide city policy. “The simple truth is that Donald Judd did not want the city anywhere near his property or his sewer lines … Mr. Judd’s foundation has now inherited the consequences of their founder’s notoriously intransigent nature and decades of inaction,” Todd wrote. “According to former Public Works Director Robert Silva, one time he couldn’t get access to the property at all, so he climbed over a Chinati fence to unclog a line that was causing a sewer emergency for a neighbor. Mr. Judd came out, yelled at him, and kicked him off his property!” 

Stanley questioned whether the now-deceased Judd’s behavior 30 years ago should factor into the handling of the present-day problem. “In terms of trying to judge what Judd would have wanted, that’s a tricky thing, and something we try not to do as a standard,” said Stanley, who emphasized that he no longer can speak on behalf of the Chinati Foundation, but had spent years looking at the world through their operational lens. “I’ve heard this before, that the city reached out a number of decades ago, and Judd rebuffed those efforts. Knowing what I know about Judd, I’m not surprised by that. But again, that was decades ago.”

Another former Chinati employee had a different recollection of the famed artist. “I don’t think Don was that way, he always liked to help,” remembered Eliseo Martinez, who worked for Judd for 16 years and for the Chinati Foundation for four. He’s also owned a home on Officer’s Row linked to the aging sewer lines since 1965. He wasn’t present for Mr. Silva’s hasty exit from Chinati Foundation grounds, but spent many years observing Judd and the city work together and navigate each other’s red tape. 

In Martinez’s time working maintenance for Chinati alongside Stanley, roughly 2011-2015, the city and the Chinati Foundation came together numerous times to solve problems. “We had a big problem with a line that busted,” he recalled. “The city had to help us. They fixed it — they were always there.” Another time, the city came with sophisticated tools to help fix a blockage. “We told them, just send a bill to Chinati. And they said ‘No, no, it’s no problem. That’s our job, [to make sure] the water and the sewer and everything is working good.’” 

As the Chinati Foundation has grown — 49,000 people made the pilgrimage in 2019 — so have the problems for the neighbors. “We have more than once had our bathroom fill up with sewage,” said Garcia. “This happens when hundreds of people come all at once for Chinati Weekend.” 

The problems don’t end with fluctuations in tourists — the neighborhood is growing too, and that growth has been hindered by the aging sewer lines. With a row of condos recently constructed at the Presidio on FM 2810 and rumors of a new development swirling, figuring out how to better service new neighbors will be a top priority. 

“I’ve never worked on anything like this — most violation issues are not this complicated,” said Todd. “They don’t involve this many moving parts or this kind of history. This is a very unique situation.” Because the City of Marfa doesn’t have the budget for the needed repairs, seeking grants will be an important part of the process. 

Chinati Foundation Director Jenny Moore was optimistic about the ability of her organization to work with the City of Marfa to address the situation. “We appreciate the significant effort the City is currently making to address these concerns as development continues in the neighborhood, putting further strain on an outdated system. We look forward to partnering with the City in support of improvements to the municipal sewer system and a positive outcome for this essential community service.”

For Martinez, who was born and raised in Marfa, any investment in the infrastructure of the Chinati Foundation is ultimately an investment in the future of Marfa. He took the time to praise the foundation’s efforts to educate young Marfans about art and all the long-term residents Chinati has brought to town. He pointed toward the Robert Irwin installation, which he can see from his front porch. Before the Chinati Foundation rehabilitated the building, the former fort hospital was rotting and falling apart, its roof caved in. 

“Everything they fix is good for the town. Other people say ‘Well, it’s just art.’ But it looks clean. It looks nice. There’s a lot of people that come and see it, a lot of people that rent a hotel or buy groceries. Everything helps. If it hadn’t been for [the art], there would probably still be nothing there.”