Presidio County receives $4.6 million for water infrastructure amid legislative push for funding

Las Pampas residents Jose Acosta and Luis Felipe Lujan fill up water tanks that are delivered to the Colonia once or twice a week, which is currently without running water. Film still courtesy of Environmental Defense Fund.

PRESIDIO COUNTY — Presidio County will receive $4.6 million from the Texas Water Development Board to fund four main projects in the county — a first-time victory for the county-wide water infrastructure steering committee that formed last year to lobby for state and federal funds, though a fraction of the $12.6 million the committee requested.

The funding, which comes from the TWDB’s Economically Distressed Areas Program (EDAP), will go towards remediating wastewater issues at Fort D.A. Russell, the establishment of first-time water and wastewater services to the East Heights area of Marfa, as well as planning and design of water services for Las Pampas Colonia near Presidio and a long-term solution to Shafter’s ongoing water instability. 

Vanessa Puig-Williams, director of Texas Water with the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund and member of the steering committee, said while the county was preliminarily approved for $12.6 million in funding, TWBD board members ultimately decided to fund only the planning and design, not the construction, of the Las Pampas and Shafter projects. 

“After the county submitted the application and really all the other supporting documents, the board felt that some of the projects were not baked enough to be ready for full construction yet, so they are just funding the planning portion of that — which is still great, that’s really needed,” said Puig-Williams. 

Trey Gerfers, general manager of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District, who headed up the steering committee, said he was frustrated with the TWDB’s decision not to fully fund Las Pampas and Shafter initiatives due to the severity of the conditions for those residents living in unincorporated communities without access to reliable water. 

“You have a town where their well could go out at any minute, and those people will have no water,” said Gerfers. “You have another colonia where people have been waiting 30 years for water, and now you’re gonna make them wait longer?” 

The town of Shafter, located in Presidio County, has experienced ongoing issues with their water supply. Film still courtesy of Environmental Defense Fund.

In this week’s edition of Gerfer’s regularly published column, “Our Water Matters,” he writes about some of the lessons learned from the EDAP application process. Even with their “top team of advisors,” the formation of the regional steering committee, and the county’s ability to meet the criteria for the grant given its population make up, they still fell short of being fully funded. 

Gerfers chalked the situation up to the project estimates being “wildly inflated,” out of an abundance of caution, and primarily TWDB’s funding processes being too city-centric. While the two Marfa projects, which will be connected to a municipal-owned water utility, were fully funded, those in unincorporated communities where such entities simply do not exist were not. 

Moving forward, Gerfers would like to see application processes streamlined as well as a greater understanding from the TWDB for how rural counties operate on the ground. Gerfer’s experiences are timely given that the most recent legislative session included discussion on how to help rural communities bolster their water infrastructure.

“All this talk about helping rural areas and helping underserved areas, it’s kind of empty talk unless they reform the way that this application process is structured,” said Gerfers.

A TWDB representative said that piecemeal funding for some projects was common in order to ensure an accurate estimation for construction costs, and that funds would likely become available in the future for the completion of the Las Pampas and Shafter projects.

“We worked closely with the County, who provided the planning, acquisition, and design costs before the project went before our Board, and the County was aware in advance of the total amount recommended to our Board for approval,” said Amanda Lavin, Assistant Executive Administrator of the TWDB. “We anticipate the EDAP will have additional funding cycles available in which the County will be able to apply for construction funding.”  

Given Texas’ prolonged drought conditions, growing populations, and recent water infrastructure failures across the state, lawmakers were motivated to find solutions to water supply issues this legislative session and authored SB 28, a bill which will infuse the TWDB with more funding that passed with bipartisan support.  

The bill, among other things, created the Texas Water Fund, which will be administered by the TWDB. But in order for the $1 billion the state budgeted for water infrastructure to be spent, it will need to win voter approval via a ballot measure in the upcoming November General Election. Should the measure pass, the TWDB would be able to utilize the newly-created Texas Water Fund, and potentially funnel money into an existing “rural water assistance fund,” which hasn’t seen funding in the recent past but could assist rural areas with water and wastewater projects. 

The bill will also allow the Texas Water Fund, at the discretion of the board, to spend dollars on “outreach, financial, planning, and technical assistance,” relating to the grants TWDB administers to help counties through the arduous process. 

Senator César Blanco, one of the bill’s cosponsors, submitted letters of support for the EDAP projects in Presidio County and expressed his gratitude to TWDB for recognizing the need to fund water infrastructure in the county. “I look forward to continuing to work with the Board on ensuring the Presidio community gets its fair share of funding for water and wastewater projects,” said Blanco in a statement. 

On the local level, in order to receive the awarded funds, Presidio County still needs to adopt model subdivision rules, which were enacted by the Legislature in 1989 in response to colonias forming along the border, and require residential land being sold to have water and wastewater services. (The Marfa City Council voted Tuesday night to adopt model subdivision rules.) 

The county will also need to establish a financial agreement with their bond council regarding the $4.6 million in funding, which will involve a loan of 30% of the total amount, or $1.38 million dollars. 

Gerfers said if all goes according to plan, the county may be able to pay back the loan with federal funds from Congressman Tony Gonzales through an earmark referred to as “community funded projects” in the amount of $2.9 million. He said he was expecting to hear back from Gonzales’ office on whether the funding was going to come through soon, but for now the City of Marfa, which will have to pay the county for the Fort D.A. Russell and East Heights projects, will need to work out a financial agreement with the county. 

The county also needs to complete its 2022 financial audit, which it is running behind on completing, before the $4.6 million from the TWDB can be received, said Gerfers. 

Next steps also include hiring engineers and designers, and conducting environmental reviews for the four priority projects. Marfa projects are slated to be complete within five years, and solutions for Las Pampas and Shafter will hopefully be designed and planned within two to three years, said Gerfers. 

In order to start on construction for Las Pampas and Shafter projects once design and planning are complete, more funding from the TWBD will need to be obtained. The potential $2.9 million federal earmark, should that come to fruition, could also help complete the projects, said Gerfers. 

Additional funding through the TWDB State Revolving Funds, for which the water district applied for a number of projects, including Las Pampas and a flood control initiative in Redford, is still pending. And more rounds of funding will open up in the coming months. 

Presidio County’s water steering committee, which is made up of members from Marfa, Shafter, Presidio and more, meet at the county courthouse. Film still courtesy of Environmental Defense Fund.

Puig-Williams said that while water was a major focus for state leaders this legislative session, an emphasis on more data collection and understanding of our aquifers — which rural communities like Presidio County exclusively rely on — was lacking. She said she would have liked to see more money allocated towards groundwater modeling, monitoring and an integration of water infrastructure and water management in future legislative sessions. 

“We’re spending billions of dollars on developing new water infrastructure, but we’re not really spending much money really trying to understand how to manage and conserve the water that’s actually going to run through that infrastructure,” said Puig-Williams. 

Puig-Williams’ organization, EDF, recently released a video on Presidio County’s water infrastructure challenges in which it profiled locals and discussed the potential of the regional approach via the steering committee. 

Rogelio Rodriguez, director of the Texas Infrastructure Fund with the nonprofit Water Finance Exchange, who also sat on the local steering committee, said overall the $4.6 million in funding the county received was a win, and the county was getting favorable attention from state entities for its regional approach. He said his organization was committed to continuing to help Presidio County think creatively in applying and receiving state and federal funding. 

“We realize it’s not just pipes and pumps — there’s flooding, there’s green infrastructure, there’s conservation infrastructure, data and monitoring projects,” said Rodriguez. “We want to turn over every rock with [Presidio County] to see what dollars we can get in the door.” 

Gerfers agreed the steering committee’s efforts were not in vain, and the fact that the county received $4.6 out of $12.6 million it requested is complicated by state-level bureaucracy that adversely affect rural communities and needed to be addressed. 

“This is not a reflection at all on the work of the steering committee or the groundbreaking potential of a regional approach,” said Gerfers. “It’s mostly just a reflection of an authority, of a bureaucracy, that’s in need of reform if they’re serious about serving communities like ours.”