New county-wide water control and improvement district allows county to manage grant funds

PRESIDIO COUNTY — When Presidio County Commissioners learned last month that $4.6 million in state grants to help develop county water infrastructure were about to be lost due to a state attorney general’s ruling, the court quickly approved a new county-wide water control and improvement district (WCID) to fix the problem.

This summer, the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) awarded grants to fund wastewater services to the East Heights area of Marfa, address wastewater issues at Fort D.A. Russell, and pay for planning projects to support new water service for Shafter and the Las Pampas Colonia near Presidio. Under the TWDB award, the county would need to issue bonds to finance $1.38 million, 30% of the grant. However, the TWDB received an attorney general’s opinion stating the grants would be illegal, because the county does not administer any water services and thus, is not allowed to issue bonds for the loan portion of the grants.

“It didn’t pass the attorney general’s smell test, and the only way we were going to get the money was to create this water district,” said County Judge Joe Portillo. Faced with that dilemma, the court voted to create the district at its September 13 meeting — a move allowed under state law.

Under Texas law, a WCID is an independent government entity that can provide the infrastructure for water, wastewater and drainage services. WCIDs can also issue bonds or take on other forms of debt, which allows the county to manage grants, most of which require a local contribution.

On Wednesday, the commissioners court met and discussed possible roles for the WCID in the future and what was needed soon to establish a governing board for the district. County Attorney Rod Ponton told the court the structure, in the near term, may need to be the four county commissioners and the county judge serving as the board until grant money is received and bonds issued. County Judge Joe Portillo said the issue of requirements for board members would be researched, and he would place an item on the November 8 court meeting to make final decisions for board members.

The September vote creating the district surprised some board members of existing water supply corporations around the county who hadn’t heard of the decision and who wondered how — if at all — this would impact their operations. The near-term answer to that question, Portillo said, is not at all. The corporations will continue to govern their water supply systems, be responsible for their wells and pumps, and administer the fee collection for water hookups. Those corporations include Candelaria, Ruidosa, Redford, and eventual corporations planned for Las Pampas and Shafter.

The purpose of the county involvement in applying for TWDB grants was to muster the expertise needed for the complicated application process. Trey Gerfers, Presidio Underground Water Conservation District general manager, and members of the county’s Water Infrastructure Steering Committee — charged with looking for state and national funding for water projects — stepped in to help.

“No one told us that this regional approach that we’re taking, where the county is the applicant and will ostensibly pass these funds through to the smaller entities like cities and the public water supply corporations, is a really exotic way to go about this,” Gerfers said. “We were just humming right along, and then suddenly [they] said, ‘Oh, the attorney general is not going to approve this.’”

Portillo said he envisions potentially having the county play a larger role in assisting the local corporations, and this new district could be the vehicle to do that. “I think the county needs to have more responsibility,” he said. “This is not a want. This is a need.”

The judge outlined a variety of challenges facing the local corporations — responding to water quality and regulatory complaints by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, paying and retaining people to test water quality, non-payment from customers, and the high costs of well maintenance and repairs. The local corporations could benefit from collaborating to face those challenges by, for instance, hiring one operator to test more than one well, or using one person for billing and administration for multiple corporations, he said. Portillo noted that one option would be to have one or two new corporations each serve multiple communities.

Gerfers said it’s clear that something needs to be done to help the community corporations. “These systems are all too tiny, too small, to take care of themselves,” he said. The new county water control and improvement district could include a board member from each local supply corporation but use combined resources to manage water across the county, he said, providing the example of an employee of the corporation testing water and managing equipment for multiple communities.

“Instead of every little community having to fend for itself, this is a way for all the communities to come together,” Gerfers said.

The new district would then be eligible for continuing grant funding that ordinarily is difficult for little corporations to obtain, he said, but added that there are several different options for collaboration other than just putting everyone under the one umbrella of the new district.

Water utilities in Marfa and Presidio are better equipped to deal with the challenges of running water supply services but still would benefit from grant funding opportunities sought by the new county WCID, Gerfers said.

County Commissioner David Beebe said he begrudgingly voted to create the new district and did so only to keep the grant money. “The county has proven time and again that we’re not good at doing things that are not absolutely required of us by law,” he said.

“Running a water district is the last thing the county needs to do,” Beebe said but continued, “because we’re already de facto supervisors of the Redford, Candelaria and Ruidosa systems. And those are constantly having problems, and we’re not good at handling them.”

However, Beebe said creating a separate, new corporation that consolidates operational costs for these communities could be a solution, as long as it’s not the county on the hook for being responsible for them. “That’s the last thing we need to do is add more employees to another [county] department. There’s just no way. We don’t have enough money to run what we’re doing now.”

Charlie Angell, president of Redford Water Supply, said he didn’t hear about the new WCID until well after it was formed and knows nothing about it. ​​He said he is receptive to the idea of collaborating with other water corporations but still is uncertain about a possible county role in managing them. “Who’s to say they’re going to do it better than what we’re able to do?” he said.

The county originally requested $12.6 million from TWDB’s Economically Distressed Areas Program, and early indications were it would get the money. However, TWDB ultimately decided not to fund construction projects, including water service in Las Pampas and Shafter, because initial planning stages are needed for accurate construction costs. County officials hope that future funding cycles will pay for those construction projects. The prospect for more funding will be considerably better if voters pass Proposition 6, on the ballot for November 7, which would create a state water fund seeded with $1 billion. That fund would allow the TWDB to administer more grants for infrastructure projects across the state. (Early voting for the entire slate of propositions began Monday and runs through Friday, November 3.)

Residents of Shafter were at Wednesday’s meeting to voice support for the new WCID and note that their community is ready and willing to do what it takes for reliable water service. Shafter is in the process of forming a local water supply corporation, which would only include about 25 hookups to local homes.

“Water has always been a problem,” Shafter resident Randall Cater told the court. “For a long time, if you moved to Shafter, the only way you could get water was if you had access to the creek.”

Cater, who has lived in Shafter for 30 years, explained that the community had received its water free of charge since the late 1990s from companies running the adjacent silver mine. However, events like a fire at the well left the community without water for more than a week.

Shafter residents learned last summer that Aurcana, the mine operator, was in dire financial shape and was selling the mine, which caused significant concern that a new owner could stop water service. That deal fell through, but a new purchase offer from a Canadian company called Silver Hammer appears to be headed toward completion, again leaving uncertainty for water supply.

Cater said if the county ultimately does create a new corporation separate from the WCID to consolidate services for water supply corporations, Shafter will be ready to take part. “I don’t think you’re going to have any problem handing it off to citizens from the affected communities,” he said. “We’re interested. We want to have a voice. We want to be involved.”