Study Butte Water Supply Corporation awaiting test results to lift do-not-use ban

TERLINGUA — For almost two weeks, customers of the Study Butte Water Supply Corporation (SBWSC) — serving “on the grid” water customers in Terlingua and Study Butte — have been under a do-not-use ban. The ban is a step up from a standard boil water advisory, requiring the SBWSC to inform its users that the system’s water may not be fit even for bathing or tending to animals.

Last Thursday, the SBWSC water board held an emergency town hall meeting to quell rumors and field community concerns. Fifty-three customers attended. “It completely defused everybody,” said Board President Bill Gilles.

Gilles and his fellow board members explained to the crowd how and why the ban has stretched on for so long. On October 9, a mechanical failure in one of the system’s wells led the company to issue a notice to customers to conserve water. In order to fill the gaps, water was trucked in the next day from nearby Lajitas and Big Bend National Park.

Following the water shipments, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) issued the “do-not-use” restriction on October 14. As spokesperson Ricky Richter explained last week to The Big Bend Sentinel, the agency pulled the emergency lever because “unapproved water haulers may have introduced unknown microbial or chemical contamination to the system” — in other words, the state could not be certain that water had been hauled in potable water containers.

Gilles was confused by the agency’s ruling, and said that only approved containers had been used — trucking water for drinking and commercial use is a reality of life for many in Terlingua. In order to comply with the agency’s regulations, the SBWSC quickly went to work compiling data and use history of all of the vehicles used in the water transport.

A similar concern was raised at the town hall meeting after some customers heard that a Terlingua Fire and EMS vehicle had been used to transport water. The water board explained the situation, both in person and in an online notice. “The Terlingua fire truck has only ever carried water,” the notice reads. “It has never held chemicals.”

Others raised concerns about the fact that notices had not been provided in Spanish. In response, Gilles reached out to the TCEQ and was informed that the corporation would have to provide their own translator — local business owner Lico Miller volunteered for the job.

In addition to providing information in Spanish, Gilles said the board had made a series of eight freestanding “sandwich signs” to place in strategic locations around town. They hoped to target some of the community’s older population not connected with their online notices or social media. “We’ve got the locations picked out and in colors they can’t miss,” he said.

At press time, SBWSC had not received water quality test results from the trucked water from TCEQ — the final piece of the puzzle that would allow the corporation to retract the ban. (TCEQ had no update for The Big Bend Sentinel at press time.)

The team capped off the presentation with an explanation of the projects they hoped to complete in the near future to prevent a repeated escalating series of system failures leading to water bans. The faulty well is up and running, and the corporation is working to replace faulty pipes and fittings with longer-lasting stainless steel, as well as secure and implement a backup generator to ensure water service during power outages.

Gilles hoped that the silver lining of the ongoing service interruption would be that locals would get more involved in SBWSC meetings — fellow Board Member Sam Bottenfield told Thursday night’s crowd that in over a decade he had never seen more than five people attend a monthly meeting.

Because Terlingua is unincorporated, board meetings are one of a very few ways that residents can participate directly in how their utilities are managed. “People [at the meeting] said, ‘Oh, you should get paid for what you do,’” Gilles said. “We do what we do so we can help the community.”