Our Water Matters

Alpine city officials issued a mandatory boil-water notice on Christmas Day due to a main line break on North Highway 118. Although the extremely cold temperatures over the Christmas holiday were initially thought to be the culprit, the break actually occurred due to wear and tear on the very old system. In an interview with Marfa Public Radio, Alpine Mayor Catherine Eaves said the holiday weekend disruption points to a need to replace Alpine’s aging water lines. “These things do need to be replaced, and I think we are going to see this occurring more often, and we need to make it a priority.”

Fortunately, the Presidio County Water Infrastructure Steering Committee is ahead of the curve and has begun the long process of addressing many of the water infrastructure needs in Presidio County, which was recently pre-approved for $12.6 million under the Economically Distressed Areas Program (EDAP) of the Texas Water Development Board. The EDAP program provides funding for first-time water and wastewater service and for projects to address water quality violations and so-called “public nuisances” that can pose water-related threats to public health.

One would assume that low-income regions like the Big Bend would be a shoo-in for a program called “economically distressed areas.” But the fact is that most underserved communities lack the technical expertise and staffing to complete the arduous application process involved with programs like EDAP. With help from groups like the Environmental Defense Fund, Water Finance Exchange and others, the steering committee has assembled a team of experienced consultants to compile the necessary paperwork to secure the funds.

Projects to be funded include the replacement of the century-old sewer line at Fort D.A. Russell in Marfa. The line was originally designed to accommodate some 5,000 soldiers stationed at the fort starting in the 1910s. Since the fort’s closing in the 1940s, the line has never had the flow necessary for it to work properly. This has led to major sedimentation in the pipes. Other portions of the line show signs of partial collapse. Another issue involves the 30+ manholes and other access points along the line which are not gasketed or sealed. Debris can enter these unsealed openings during major rain events, further silting up the line and causing overflows of raw sewage onto the ground in extreme downpours. The city has already received at least one violation notice from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) for issues related to this outdated sewer line.

Another project subject to TCEQ violations is the water system in Shafter. Residents there have long enjoyed free water provided by the Shafter mine. But the drawbacks of this arrangement have become increasingly apparent. As a public water supply, the mine’s well is subject to certain quality requirements that have not been consistently met since the mine operator stopped paying its employees back in the summer of 2022.

Located some 12 miles north of Presidio, Colonia Las Pampas is a community with no access to drinking water. Potential solutions to be covered by EDAP funding include building a pipeline from the city of Presidio to pump the water uphill from the municipal system to Las Pampas.

Another less costly option might be to drill a well in the Cibolo Creek watershed to supply water to Las Pampas and eventually send it downhill to the Presidio Lely Airport using funding from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. A Texas Community Development Block Grant has been secured from the Texas Department of Agriculture Colonias Program to study the situation in both Shafter and Las Pampas, and engineers will be examining options in the coming months.

The EDAP funding will also cover first-time water and sewer service to the East Heights area of Marfa and various other areas inside Marfa city limits. The goal with all of these projects will be to bring water and wastewater service to areas with inadequate or no service, while simultaneously economizing wherever possible. A portion of this funding is a loan which will need to be paid back. By minimizing overall project costs, the loan amount can be kept commensurately small in order to stretch the borrowing capacity of Presidio County as far as possible to fund other projects well into the future.

Trey Gerfers is a San Antonio native and serves as general manager of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District. He is also chairman of the Presidio County Water Infrastructure Steering Committee and board president of the Marfa Parks and Recreation Board. Trey has lived in Marfa since 2013. He can be reached at [email protected]