Our Water Matters: More Water Infrastructure Funding for Presidio County

Trey Gerfers, general manager of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District, addressed the board of directors of the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) earlier this month in Austin. Gerfers is currently coordinating efforts to obtain water and wastewater infrastructure funding from the TWDB on behalf of Presidio County.

The Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) recently approved Presidio County’s pre-applications for more water and wastewater funding from the state revolving funds. This approval is another step in the county’s regional approach that has already yielded nearly $5 million to replace, renew and expand Presidio County’s water and wastewater infrastructure. The rapid pace of approvals over the past two years is thanks in no small part to Bill Moriarty, the grant writer who has been working with Presidio County.

At a recent meeting of the board of directors of the Texas Water Development Board in Austin, I thanked the directors for their work and related some of the challenges we face here in Far West Texas. Afterwards, I had the privilege of meeting with TWDB leadership, as well as representatives from Water Finance Exchange and the Environmental Defense Fund. The objective was to discuss how best to move forward with Presidio County’s regional approach. As we are learning, the state’s current loan structures and associated timelines (which are often defined by law) are still geared toward individual communities and utilities. This not only reinforces the TWDB’s systemic emphasis on isolated projects (typically to the advantage of large cities), but it also fosters an environment in which small towns have to compete against each other for funding, instead of working together to maximize regional efficiencies. There is broad agreement that this needs to change. The question that remains is how.

Another hurdle to accessing these funds involves other laws that fail to account for the special circumstances of rural counties. This has made it difficult for the Attorney General’s Office, which must sign off on all loans by the TWDB, to provide clear guidance on how best to accommodate the needs of sparsely populated areas. In many ways, Presidio County is acting as a test case to iron out the wrinkles in a unique approach that could benefit many people who live in small towns across the state. But this will require close coordination between TWDB staff, the Attorney General’s Office, and Presidio County’s consultants. It is hoped that our efforts will bring the state’s processes and structures into line with the needs of entire regions to actually achieve one of TWDB’s stated goals: overcoming decades of neglect of our rural and remote communities.

Another intriguing aspect of Presidio County’s approach is our novel emphasis on so-called “green infrastructure” or “nature-based solutions.” Although the building of a berm to direct surface water or the planting of trees to provide ground cover may not seem revolutionary, the use of infrastructure funding for these sorts of inputs has been extremely limited. Our approach aims to focus some of the resources traditionally dedicated to conventional infrastructure (such as pipes and pumps) toward improving the resilience of the actual sources of our water (such as aquifers, streams and rivers). Proposals include more funding to restore Alamito Creek, a study to enhance the flood diversion capacity of several resacas (dislocated oxbow lakes) along the Rio Grande, and the expansion of the Junta de los Rios wetlands. Other projects include a 3D geological model of the Igneous and West Texas Bolsons aquifers and a study to develop managed aquifer recharge zones. These efforts will help us better understand, manage and enhance our water supply. 

Presidio County’s current proposal also includes several traditional projects, such as the repair of Redford’s levee and restoration of its acequia system, a flood study for the Redford-Presidio corridor, the rehabilitation of the City of Presidio’s standpipe, and water service to the Marfa airport. Other exciting initiatives include several rainwater catchment projects to control flooding and reduce our reliance on groundwater. This rainwater will be used to irrigate native vegetation and create shadier surfaces in response to rising average temperatures across our region.

There is still much work to be done and many hurdles to overcome. But as the TWDB seeks to focus less on individual communities and more on interconnected regions, Presidio County’s regional approach, which promotes economies of scale, greater sharing of resources and increased efficiencies, could serve as a model for other parts of the state.

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 president of the Marfa Parks and Recreation Board. Trey has lived in Marfa since 2013.