More than 600 children in a South Texas border town may be prevented from returning to school on Monday because of a long-standing dispute over water rates, which have skyrocketed in recent years amid attempts to make badly needed upgrades to the town’s water infrastructure.
Several attempts at negotiation between the city of La Villa and the La Villa Independent School District have failed, after the district refused to pay more than $50,000 in overdue water bills and the city cut off its water service. School officials say they are being charged too much for water from a mismanaged utility, while the city contends that it needs money to cover millions of dollars in needed repairs to water and sewer treatment systems.
Beyond the political and financial tussle, the situation illustrates the struggles facing the small Texas border towns that operate the treatment plants that supply drinking water and clean up wastewater.
“Basically, it’s planning and lack of money, and lack of management,” said Carlos Acevedo, a senior project manager for the Border Environment Cooperation Commission, a binational agency charged with improving environmental conditions along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Towns like La Villa, with fewer than 2,000 people, often have high turnover rates in city and utility leadership positions. Between one project and the next, management may have changed — along with the politics of the situation. Acevedo said the BECC has tried for years to persuade La Villa and its neighboring towns, Elsa and Edcouch, to connect their water and wastewater plants into one system, but local politics and changing players got in the way. The towns even argued over where the regional facilities should be located.
“If they don’t want to participate in a joint effort, we can do nothing,” Acevedo said.
La Villa City Manager Wilfredo Mata, who has been on the job for a year, doesn’t disagree that the city suffers from serious infrastructure problems. But regionalization won’t solve the cost issue, he said.
“It’s still going to cost the same amount of dollars, and we’re still going to pay it,” Mata said. “You have an aging, antiquated system that’s going to need a substantial amount of money to repair and replace.”
La Villa’s decades-old sewage treatment plant is permitted to clean 200,000 gallons of wastewater a day, but in reality it processes more than 300,000 gallons per day. The plant needs 300 amps of power to operate but has a 180-amp generator. Such problems, along with broken pipes and other old equipment, led to stern warnings last year from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The facility that treats water for drinking has its own problems, Mata added: The TCEQ has threatened fines as high as $10,000 a day because La Villa’s drinking water contains too much trihalomethane, a chemical that forms during the treatment process. Drinking such water over a long period could increase a person’s chances of developing kidney and liver problems, as well as cancer, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
TCEQ’s warnings prompted La Villa to sell more than $1 million in bonds last year to make emergency repairs to its sewer system and fix the water treatment problems, which have now largely been addressed, Mata said. But the loan will cost the town $140,000 in annual debt service for the next 10 years, and the only way to pay that is to raise the historically low rates charged to its 400 customers, the town’s prison system and the school district.
The school district was already paying a surcharge of $6 per student on water and sewer services; the city raised it to $14 per student in late 2012, prompting the rebellion.
“It appears that the city is intent on obtaining the financial and instructional resources of the district in an attempt to finance its historical inefficient operation of the city’s water and waste water services,” district officials wrote in a recent news release. Rates may have to increase even more in the future, because the town estimates it will cost as much as $7 million to further upgrade its water and sewer systems.
La Villa is one of many towns along the border that have struggled to properly maintain the water infrastructure while potentially risking public health. In August, the towns of Rio Bravo and El Cenizo had water trucked in for more than three weeks after residents fell ill and tests showed that the water was contaminated with dangerous amounts of E. coli bacteria. Raw sewage dumped into the Rio Grande from Mexico, which the U.S. and Mexico are both working to address, was part of the problem, but the water intake plants for the two towns had also been badly mismanaged and couldn’t treat the water properly.
In the border town of Vinton, on the outskirts of El Paso, no public water or wastewater service exists. Residents drink from private wells and dispose of their wastewater through septic systems, often without any knowledge of how to use them properly. A recent health assessment by the University of Texas at El Paso found dangerously high levels of arsenic in many of Vinton’s wells, and others showed traces of E. coli. A survey of health outcomes was just as alarming.
“People have a lot of skin rashes and skin infections, and this might be related to the salt content,” said Bill Hargrove, director of the Center for Environmental Resource Management at UTEP. “When you bathe using that water, it really dries out your skin. You get irritated, and you scratch it and it gets infected.” A third of Vinton residents also reported gastrointestinal problems.
Regional officials have pushed for years to connect Vinton to El Paso’s water and wastewater systems, but local officials have resisted. The project is estimated to cost at least $35 million, though Vinton would qualify for significant state and federal help. A new city council, however, has signaled a change in attitude.
“What we’ve inherited is decades and decades of neglect and lack of investment,” said El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar. “The enormity of the problem cannot be overstated.”