Communities unite to overcome decades of undrinkable water in West Texas

(UI) — In a recent community meeting held in July, residents from these rural West Texas communities gathered, each holding a mason jar filled with brown, cloudy water—a visible testament to the water quality problems that have troubled over 300 residents in these areas, according to Amarillo Globe-News.

Situated on the outskirts of Lubbock and Shallowater, these communities have been regularly notified of water quality violations by the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the state's environmental agency.

According to Amarillo Globe-News, TCEQ records indicate that elevated levels of fluoride, arsenic, perfluoroalkyl, and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals have rendered the water undrinkable for nearly two decades, forcing residents to rely on bottled water.

Approximately 65 residents attended the July meeting with a common goal—to establish the South Plains Water Supply Corporation. This collaborative public entity aims to make these four housing developments eligible for regional, state, and federal funding. Amarillo Globe-News reports that the newly formed organization, governed by a board of directors representing all four subdivisions, is working diligently to meet an August 31 deadline for applying for around $3.3 million from the Texas Water Development Board. If successful, these funds will be allocated to repair the broken water treatment and filtration systems in the region.

While the water issues in these communities are not unique, they exemplify a broader problem. As per Amarillo Globe-News, a 2016 report revealed that 65 Texas water systems contained excessive levels of arsenic, exposing approximately 51,000 Texans to this contaminant. Most of these systems were concentrated in rural areas of West Texas.

Financial relief is on the horizon, as Texas has been allocated approximately $2.5 billion in federal funding dedicated to water infrastructure through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Additionally, the state has earmarked more than $2 billion to improve water supplies, address failing infrastructure, and mitigate flooding. According to Amarillo Globe-News, a significant portion of this funding—$1 billion—will be directed towards the New Water Supply for Texas Fund and the Texas Water Fund, pending approval from voters in the fall election.

Ken Rainwater, a civil engineer based in Lubbock serving as an engineering consultant for the newly formed corporation, emphasized the importance of capital improvements for water systems like these, which lack the resources of larger municipalities. As reported by Amarillo Globe-News, Rainwater highlighted the necessity of grant funds or low-interest loans for smaller systems.

Part of the issue traces back to the 2021 Winter Storm Uri, which exacerbated the water problems in these communities due to inadequately weatherized treatment plants. Other contamination issues have persisted longer, becoming problematic when TCEQ lowered the maximum allowable levels of arsenic and fluoride.

Before the South Plains Water Supply Corporation's formation, the state intervened following an April 2021 investigation. Amarillo Globe-News reveals that this investigation uncovered that the owner and operator of the four water systems had passed away, and the new operator had experienced a medical emergency. TCEQ subsequently appointed an independent company to temporarily manage the deteriorating, abandoned water systems. Such emergency measures are rare, according to a TCEQ spokesperson, and temporary managers do not own the utility but are tasked with ensuring continuous and adequate service.

Deborah Hunt, a resident of Town North Estates and secretary-treasurer of South Plains Water Supply Corporation, expressed her reluctance to drink the local water due to its poor taste. She and her neighbors have also had to contend with low water pressure.

The South Plains partnership drew inspiration from similar initiatives in Florida, where small water utilities collaborated to improve their systems. Amarillo Globe-News reports that Robert Sheets, who founded the Florida Governmental Utility Association, is now assisting the South Plains Water Supply Corporation in addressing their water challenges. He stressed the urgency of taking a collaborative approach to address local government issues.

While efforts were made during the recent legislative session to pass House Bill 2701, allowing public water and wastewater utilities to join forces for efficiency and cost savings, the bill only cleared the House and did not pass in the Senate. However, Sheets and Carlos Rubinstein, a former chair of the Texas Water Development Board, have plans to reintroduce the legislation during the next regular session. In the meantime, they are committed to supporting small water systems, including the newly established South Plains Water Supply Corporation.

The story was originally published by Amarillo Globe-News.

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