Newly-formed committee works to obtain funding for water infrastructure projects across Presidio County

PRESIDIO COUNTY — A newly-formed steering committee made up of representatives from the county, cities of Presidio and Marfa, unincorporated communities, organizations and consultants is working to solicit government funding for water and wastewater infrastructure projects spanning Presidio County over the next five years. 

The potential projects — which range from bringing water and wastewater services to Las Pampas Colonia outside of Presidio to groundwater modeling of the West Texas Bolsons Aquifer — could be made possible by state revolving funds, or forgivable loans, administered by the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB). On the federal level, funding for such initiatives stems from the recent passing of the American Rescue Plan Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. 

Trey Gerfers, who is heading up the committee and also serves as board chairman of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District, believes the group, which began meeting last month, is well-positioned to take advantage of these funding opportunities. This is partly because it is seeking funds for projects that would have a wide-reaching regional impact, Gerfers explained. For example, the county’s top priority would involve bringing water and wastewater services to the Presidio Airport, Industrial Park and Las Pampas, which could have significant economic impact on a widespread area. 

“It’s paving the way toward making these projects more attractive to the state revolving fund and the Texas Water Development Board, where they can see that they’re going to get more bang for their buck if they fund this rather than just these discrete projects of everybody kind of looking out for themselves,” said Gerfers. 

To increase its odds, the committee is working with an experienced grant writer and is receiving guidance from established national nonprofits such as Water Finance Exchange (WFX) and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Gerfers hopes that the federal government’s recent focus on supporting infrastructure initiatives in underserved, low-income communities will also give the region a sorely-needed leg up.

“So often this kind of funding is announced and there’s a deadline to apply for it, but in places like Presidio, Marfa and Presidio County we just don’t have the staff. We don’t have the capacity to understand those rules, understand all the ins and outs and apply for it,” said Gerfers. 

Rogelio Rodriguez, director of the Texas Infrastructure Fund with Water Finance Exchange, whose organization is assisting as project facilitators for the county — helping demystify the funding process and give applications a competitive edge — said rural communities do tend to lose out on these funding opportunities, but Presidio County’s newfound regional approach and diversity of projects should make them more appealing to funders. 

“That’s part of why we and EDF got involved, so we can help them put together these applications. Because the will is there, the desire is there, the need is there, it’s just a matter of how you approach it,” said Rodriguez. “Communities get funded all the time and with the [Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act] money. I think there’s even more of an opportunity for communities like Presidio [County] to get funded. We’re very hopeful.” 

In order to further their cause in the eyes of potential funders, Presidio County and the cities of Marfa and Presidio recently adopted a resolution committing to participate in the steering committee and actively work toward meeting its goals — from more green infrastructure to creating jobs to better understanding water resources — regardless of who holds local public office. 

Gerfers said the committee submitted a preliminary list of projects this past March, which have now been scored by the TWDB, and they expect to be invited back to submit more detailed proposals soon. Funding could be seen by the end of 2022, he said. The committee, while robustly represented by city and county officials, could use greater input from citizens in the unincorporated communities of Ruidosa and Candelaria, he said. 

So far, priority projects the committee has outlined are for Marfa to address the longstanding failure of the sewer system on the Chinati Foundation, previously Fort DA Russell, and Officers Row properties, for which the city received a violation from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality back in 2020. The committee would also like to see water and wastewater services brought to the East Heights area, where lots don’t meet the spacial requirements needed to drill wells.

The City of Presidio is looking to upgrade valve systems within their water utility. Redford has prioritized repairing a levee that was destroyed in a 2008 flood in order to improve its acequias, irrigation systems that were once used to help grow fruit and nut trees that also provided valuable shade. Candelaria could see the area of Pinto Canyon Road that is subject to flooding fixed, and Shafter is assessing the idea of establishing a water supply independent of the Rio Grande Mining Company. Shafter residents were left without water for an extended time period after a pump house fire this fall. 

The Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District has prioritized projects to increase monitoring of water levels and water quality in order to further assess the overall health of water resources, said Gerfers. 

“Where it gets interesting for us is: How do you integrate all of this, your pipes and your pumps and your jobs and your economic development, with a greater understanding of aquifer health and watershed, enhancement or restoration?” said Gerfers. 

The groundwater district currently operates seven monitoring wells, which have only been up and running for a few years. By establishing more monitoring wells, through drilling its own or seeking partnerships with cooperative landowners, the district will be able to gather multiple data points a year and build a data set over time which will allow for a greater understanding of the Igneous and West Texas Bolson aquifers. Data could then be fed into a potential groundwater model of the Balsones. Gerfers said these studies will be useful resources as the county prepares for future challenges in the face of climate change.  

“There’s not going to be any getting around drought. There’s not gonna be any getting around wildfires. It’s coming. The best way to protect ourselves is to get ready and to build the most possible resilience into our systems,” said Gerfers. 

Rodriguez said the need for increased monitoring efforts relates back to the county’s regional approach, as everyone is utilizing the same water sources, and it is important to keep tabs on how economic activities and growth are affecting natural resources. 

“It’s important that we have data and monitoring to be able to gauge the impact of all the activities on that same water source for the different communities so they can be aware, they can plan, they can have sustainable efforts to make sure that their water sources are long lasting,” said Rodriguez. 

The district will also seek funding for rainwater catchment systems, tree planting initiatives, and FarmBots, devices which ensure remote cattle ranching pumps are shutting off properly. Gerfers said while citizens will opt in to new water services and will not be forced to participate, he hopes the community realizes that paying into city utilities helps create strong systems that benefit everyone in the long run. 

“We need to be viewing our role as being investors in our infrastructure, the rates that we pay, the bills that we pay, those are investments in that system and its maintenance,” said Gerfers. “It’s only through those systems that our communities are going to survive out here.”