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Water Challenges: Growth, Age & Pollution Make Supply an Uphill Climb

08/01/2017 03:44:00 pm | Viewed: 442

Texas Construction News from Virtual Builders Exchange




Posted: 8-2-2017, 10:12 a.m.

by Edmond Ortiz

Every other week, municipalities large and small across Texas stand before the Texas Water Development Board seeking funds to fix obsolete water and wastewater systems, or to expand capacity.

Every business day, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality investigates complaints, monitors water and wastewater utilities, and frequently issues orders to fix potential and active health hazards.

The two state agencies work hand-in-hand with local agencies and corporations, facing a never-ending challenge to provide safe and sufficient water/wastewater operations.

2017 Executive Summary of the State Water Plan: “The estimated capital cost to design, construct, and implement the approximately 2,500 recommended water management strategy projects by 2070 is $63 billion. If strategies are not implemented, approximately one-third of Texas’ population would have less than half the municipal water supplies they will require during a drought of record in 2070.”

The need is formidable and Texas agencies use a carrot and stick approach to encourage and prod utilities forward. The Water Development Board (TWDB) provides the carrot in the form of low interest loans. The most frequently used types of TWDB loans are:

  • Texas Water Development Fund—a state-funded loan program with no federal subsidy. Eligible agencies can use it for water supply, wastewater and flood control projects.
  • Drinking Water State Revolving Fund—authorized by the Safe Drinking Water Act. The DWSRF provides low-cost financial assistance for planning, acquisition, design, and construction of water infrastructure. The program is capped at $250 million annually. This is a mix of below market loans and loan forgiveness (similar to grants).
  • Clean Water State Revolving Fund—authorized by the Clean Water Act. The CWSRF provides low-cost financing for planning, acquisition, design, and construction of wastewater, reuse, and stormwater infrastructure. The program has about $525 million available annually.
  • SWIFT (State Water Implementation Fund for Texas)—a state-funded loan program for water management strategy projects. These include conservation and reuse, desalinating groundwater and seawater, building new pipelines, reservoirs and well fields, purchasing water rights.

A July 2017 TWDB Action for the City of Ennis:

TWDB Action for Ennis - July 2017

The TWDB has seen an uptick in the number of recommended water planning strategies since 2012, the year of its last planning cycle.

“That number has increased to about 5,500 different water management strategies,” said Jessica Zuba, the board’s deputy executive administrator of water supply and infrastructure.

Jessica Zuba of the TWDB

The state guardians of water would much prefer that local utilities be proactive. This is frequently not the situation they encounter.

Brian McGovern, media relations specialist at TCEQ, said many public water and wastewater systems face an array of challenges, which generally are based on water quality or quantity, age and condition of existing infrastructure, or lack of infrastructure.

In most cases, local water providers struggle to convince their own leaders and customers for the need to be proactive, not only for current maintenance and operation, but for future improvements and expansion, he said.

“As infrastructure ages and many water systems struggle to find funds to acquire new source waters, and install/maintain needed treatment and distribution systems, the likelihood of massive failures such as a major water main break, increase,” McGovern said.

The financial impacts of meeting regulatory requirements are a continuing issue for many communities, McGovern added. In the case of drinking water systems, the most pressing rules are new—either recently issued or pending—as the result of standard setting by the Environmental Protection Agency’s implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1996.

The TWDB takes into consideration violations cited by the TCEQ. It is frequently the case that this becomes a factor when local utilities seek state assistance. When a local utility comes under a TCEQ order, their issue can be considered an emergency.

“We’ve developed subsets in these programs for where a disaster has occurred,” Zuba said.



Cisco, Texas - Photo courtesy of Google Maps


Cisco in Eastland County, 45 miles east of Abilene, suffered a flood that destroyed its surface water treatment plant. Despite their best efforts to keep the system working, the city of Cisco briefly ran out of water to its 3,800 residents.

Ever since, Cisco has been using a mobile treatment system.

Last November, the TWDB used an “Urgent Need” reserve in the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund to award the town $500,000. Cisco was due to receive bids earlier this summer for the construction of a new treatment system.

Before TWDB came through with the funds, it was TCEQ staff the worked closely with Cisco staff and consulting engineers to address the emergency through expedited reviews and technical assistance, McGovern said.

“TCEQ also arranged for Cisco to attend a meeting with the Texas Water Infrastructure Coordination Committee to discuss funding options from various state and federal agencies in a one-stop shop approach to help save time and resources,” McGovern noted.

Kerr County Looks Downtream

Guadalupe River at Center Point

A Guadalupe River crossing at Center Point in Kerr County. Photo courtesy of Google Maps.


A few years ago, the TWDB awarded $1.9 million to help Kerr County complete planning and design for a two-phase wastewater project. The county is now ready to break ground on a central sewer service in the unincorporated community of Center Point southeast of Kerrville.

Center Point septic systems have been failing, and that concerns downstream users reliant on water from the Guadalupe River. Kerr County Commissioner Jonathan Letz said some pollution has come from upstream but most is attributed to the septic systems.

Kerr County Commissioner Jonathan Letz

“The problem is that the lots are so small they can’t install a new septic system that meets the state’s current standards, so we thought the best thing was to join a central sewer system,” Letz said.

In December 2015, the TWDB approved an additional $31.4 million of assistance through a combination of loan forgiveness, a grant and loans. The county then issued $5.3 million in certificates of obligation in 2016 to cover its share of Phase 1 funding. This will provide 33 miles of sewer line for 900 connections to the downstream Kendall County wastewater treatment plant, which in turn is being upgraded to handle the additional system load.

Kerr County is applying for more state funds for Phase 2—an $18 million expansion of the area’s sewage collection system. The Kerr County commissioners have taken a regional approach, working with downstream legislators and state leaders to inform them of the effects that could benefit communities beyond their jurisdiction.

“This project is important to Seguin and downstream. We went to state Sen. Lois Holkhorst (R-Benham, Texas, sits on the Agriculture, Water & Rural Affairs Committee) and told her we don’t want any part of Guadalupe River designated highly polluted.”

There are pollution risk factors beyond the responsibility of local water and wastewater treatment providers that are better managed by politicians and state or federal agencies. Capital projects for water and wastewater don’t solve every issue that can pose a risk to the populace and the environment.

Industrial facilities dump toxic chemicals into Texas waterways; See Environment Texas Research and Policy Center's Wasting Our Waterways. Methane has been found in ground water wells. Some methane pollution is believed to be caused by fracking.

Some isolated rural are also at risk from unsafe levels of arsenic that naturally occurs in groundwater. The Environmental Integrity Project has disputed TCEQ assurances about the safety of drinking water in 65 utilities that serve more than 82,000 people.

According to a Texas Tribune report on the Environment Integrity Project’s arsenic study (see Don't Drink The Water), Texas requires public water utilities to issue a notice where high arsenic levels are found. It states:

“This is not an emergency. However, some people who drink water containing arsenic excess of the (arsenic limit) over many years could experience skin damage or problems with their circulatory system, and may have an increased risk of getting cancer. You do not need to use an alternative water supply.”


A July 2017 TWDB Action for Farmersville, with order from TCEQ:




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Zoom Related Images
The Guadalupe River at a crossing in Center Point, Kerr County
The Granbury Wastewater Treatment Plant
Jessica Zuba - TWDB
Kerr County Commissioner Jonathan Letz

Author Info
Adolfo Pesquera

Adolfo Pesquera is a veteran news journalist. He has worked for Hearst Corp., American Lawyer Media, News Corp and Freedom Communications. His work has been published in newspapers and magazines across the USA. He is a journalism graduate of UT-RGV. He writes, edits and creates digital pages for VBX.