Cities of Marfa and Alpine receive asset management grants for water infrastructure

TRI-COUNTY — The cities of Marfa and Alpine are among 20 cities from across the state recently selected by the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) to participate in a grant program designed to help rural municipalities better understand and manage their water and wastewater infrastructure.

“This is a big win for our little communities out here,” Alpine City Manager Megan Antrim said. “Both Marfa and Alpine, we’re isolated, we’re in the middle of nowhere, so to both get the same type of grant is just awesome.” 

The Asset Management Program for Small Systems (AMPSS) subsidizes the cost of engineers and asset management software to assist rural municipalities in determining the lifespan of existing water infrastructure, which in turn allows them to plan for the future regarding necessary upgrades and budgets. 

According to a TWDB spokesperson, 114 systems applied for this round of funding, including 75 drinking water systems and 39 wastewater systems. Criteria taken into consideration include system size, annual household income within the service area, whether the system serves only rural areas, compliance with Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) regulations, previous applications for AMPSS participation and customer growth.   

City of Marfa 

The City of Marfa will receive assistance in both drinking water and wastewater categories, a total of $200,000 worth of services the TWDB will foot the bill for, City Manager Mandy Roane said. 

Marfa applied to the AMPSS program previously and was not selected. Roane said the awareness that much larger towns than Marfa received supposed “rural” funding spurred her, Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District Manager Trey Gerfers and the county to write a letter to the TWDB encouraging them to reassess their definitions of rural. 

A TWDB spokesperson said the entities’ letter was taken into consideration and led to definition changes in the Texas Water Code that were adopted this past legislative session. 

Roane said participation in the AMPSS program will allow the city to develop a comprehensive water infrastructure management plan that will ideally give them a heads up on failing equipment, as opposed to the current situation which sees the Public Works department putting out fires as they arise. 

“There’s just a lot of water and wastewater infrastructure work that needs to be done,” Roane said. “This will give us a roadmap and help us prioritize what needs to be done, what we need to save, how much money is this going to cost us and projections like that.”

Engineers hired by the TWDB will assess water storage tanks including the iconic silver tank — which was suffering from leaks recently that have since been fixed — the white and purple tank located on the north side of town and the new groundwater storage tank that was recently erected at the water plant. They will also look at the city’s existing water wells, fire hydrants, buildings Public Works employees occupy, pipes and water treatment systems. 

Roane said the engineer’s assessments will help illuminate just how old all of the town’s water infrastructure is. In the case of Fort D.A. Russell — whose sewer issues are set to be addressed with another recently awarded TWDB grant — infrastructure dates back to World War II. 

Replacing older equipment when it fails is another challenge the city faces, Roane said. The city’s water meters, for example, are outdated and hard to replace, prompting the city to switch over to new, more accurate, automatic readers this year, Roane said. 

“They’re breaking and we can’t even find replacements,” Roane said. “We try and order them, but they’re not being made as much anymore, which is why we’re trying to go to the automated meter system.”

There is a possibility that the engineer’s recommendations will include greener or more economic alternatives for future water infrastructure upgrades, Roane said. In the meantime, the city is working to update meters and bring online a third water well which will help serve as a backup to the city’s two existing wells. “Our wells are workhorses, which is why it will be good to have another one online hopefully by the end of the year,” Roane said. 

“We want to make sure that we have plenty of power and the ability to get water to all the customers who need it,” she added. 

City of Alpine

The City of Alpine applied for both the drinking and wastewater grant and was selected to receive $100,000 worth of services from the TWDB for wastewater infrastructure planning. City Manager Megan Antrim said administrators are excited to receive the assistance as fixing the failing wastewater treatment plant — which has caused perpetual sewer backups — is one of the city’s top priorities. 

“The City of Alpine has what I call ‘band-aid’ the wastewater treatment plant and sewer system for multiple years,” Antrim said. “We need to truly invest in the operations of the wastewater treatment plant so that we can get back to where it needs to be.”

A feasibility study accepted by Alpine City Council in 2022 by engineering firm JACOB|MARTIN estimated the plant — which was partially remodeled in the 1990s but is suffering due to a failure to replace parts — required $6 million worth of repairs, Antrim said. That study laid out phases of repairs, which the city is making its way through as its budget allows, she said. 

So far, they have replaced two aerators at the plant, one of its key components, and are seeking additional funding. “Funding is always a big thing. It’s not the employees. It’s not necessarily the administration or the council. It’s having the money to invest into those huge projects,” Antrim said.

She said working with TWDB-hired engineers to develop a holistic wastewater management plan in addition to the plant feasibility study will help the city determine immediate needs and stay on track in other areas like staffing and budgeting in the future. “It’s a lot of coordinating,” Antrim said. “But to have step one, this is your plan, this is where you need to start, I think is really important for the city.”