Our Water Matters

Lessons of Odessa: Managing water assets to build resilience

The city of Odessa recently experienced a massive water main failure that left about 126,000 people without water for nearly two days and boil-water notices for several days thereafter. The suffering was further exacerbated by a brutal heatwave. According to Tom Kerr, the Odessa utilities director, the line that broke was about 60 years old. “Aging water systems are common throughout the country,” Kerr said. “It’s often difficult for municipalities to be able to afford to manage those systems as they age. That’s the situation we find ourselves in.”

In its report titled “The Future of Water Infrastructure in the U.S. and Texas,” the Texas Water Resources Institute lays out a grim picture of current water systems. “A lot of infrastructure in this country is aging,” according to Dr. Manny Teodoro, an expert quoted in the report. “But in the water sector, it’s worse than most other sectors of the economy that rely on large, fixed infrastructure.”

One of the biggest contributors to the neglected condition of our water systems is the lack of proper funding. Water systems – by their very nature – tend to be “out of sight, out of mind.” In Teodoro’s view, “If people don’t see it, historically there’s been a tendency to underinvest in the replacement and maintenance of those systems until they fail. They are beginning to fail, and they have been failing across the country.”

According to Dr. Amanda Wutich, another expert quoted in the report, decentralized water and sewage systems, including private wells and septic tanks, above- or below-ground cisterns, composting toilets, home water filter systems and having water trucked in, are all part of a “mosaic water provisioning system” that is poorly understood or completely ignored when considering water infrastructure. Rural communities, unincorporated areas, such as colonias, and other underserved populations around the country have been living with unreliable connections to centralized water and sewage systems or none at all.

Population growth is another issue driving the urgent need for updates to our water infrastructure. Even if our current systems were well maintained, their original capacity would eventually be outstripped by the increasing number of users. With Texas’ population poised to double within the next 20 years, the question isn’t “if” these systems will fail, but “when” — simply because they weren’t designed to serve so many people. The population question is further complicated by the relatively new phenomenon of nightly rentals that represent a growing slice of water demand. Water planning is traditionally based on the number of residents in a community. The absence of a recognized way to track and account for the increased, intermittent demand on water resources by growing numbers of temporary visitors poses a novel challenge for the future.

All communities of the Big Bend are dealing with these issues, which can seem pretty insurmountable. Fortunately, the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) offers a free program called the Asset Management Program for Small Systems (AMPSS) that is aimed at tiny communities like ours. It provides “a planning process that ensures you get the most value from each of your assets and have the financial resources to rehabilitate and replace them when necessary,” according to the TWDB website. This includes developing a comprehensive plan to reduce costs, increase the efficiency and reliability of a water or wastewater system’s assets, and get the most value out of those assets. The program aims to assist small systems in maintaining the financial capacity necessary “to make scheduled repairs and planned replacement of assets before there is a crisis.” Area municipalities and water supply corporations can apply by completing a short, two-page Participant System Application, which is due by July 21.

More information is available at: twdb.texas.gov/financial/programs/ampss/index.asp

Small systems that complete the Asset Management Program will be in a far better position to benefit from sweeping funding initiatives under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (ILJA). The ILJA specifically allocates some $55 billion to water infrastructure, which includes $11.6 billion each for the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds. The Asset Management Program is one of many steps that communities can take to avoid water system collapse and prevent the suffering we saw recently in Odessa.

Trey Gerfers is a San Antonio native and serves as board chairman of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District. He earns his living as a translator of technical documents from German to English for the German and Swiss pharmaceutical and medical-science industries. Trey has lived in Marfa since 2013. He can be reached at [email protected]