Texas towns need money, technical help and compromise to save their water systems
Water agencies have long resisted working together out of fear of losing their local powers. But an example from Florida could help save the Lone Star State’s water and infrastructure.
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This article is part of a series published by The Texas Tribune examining the state's deteriorating water infrastructure. For more in our Broken pipes series, click here. And join us May 9 for a live discussion about our report and hear directly from Texans working to solve the problem.
WOLFFORTH — It wasn’t the blistering heat — unrelenting even after the colorful West Texas sunset — that was keeping Randy Hall awake last summer. Instead, he would stay up much of the night thinking about Wolfforth’s water tank.
Hall is the city’s water plant and operations manager. He noticed that, just about every day, the level of the city's 1.5 million gallon tank would fall 15 feet. The levels kept going down as more people were moving to Wolfforth: The small town’s population has boomed about 58% since 2011.
Wolfforth’s water system was already under strain — and dependent on nearly 80-year-old pipes in some areas — to keep the water clean from arsenic and fluoride, among other contaminants. As those issues coupled with the growing population, water supply became yet another problem surfacing from below.
“When we see those trends of our tank levels coming down and down over several days, it does get to a point where it makes us uncomfortable,” Hall said.
For decades, the Lubbock suburb of about 6,000 people has had a reputation for lacking clean drinking water, and city leaders like Hall have long fought the stigma. But, he also knew that when he got to work in the morning, the tank would be lower than the day before.
Suddenly, the city was confronted with a cold reality: There isn’t enough water, let alone safe water, for all the people who want to call Wolfforth home.
Many Texas water managers are destined for sleepless nights like this. Millions and millions of more people continue moving into a state that is at the same time losing more than 132 billion gallons of water every year just from leaky pipes and line breaks.
Texas water systems face three simultaneous threats: a surging population, climate change and deteriorating infrastructure that is largely decentralized. Texas is poised to invest billions of dollars to address the state’s growing water needs. However, that investment is not sufficient to fend off the increasing number of threats to the state’s water systems, water advocates say.
The costs to remedy Texas’ vast network of leaking pipes are substantial and continuously growing. Historic rates of inflation have increased the costs of labor and materials. And water systems have, over the years, been saddled with an increasing number of requirements to ensure water is safe for public consumption. Most recently, the EPA issued new regulations requiring public water systems to inventory, and eventually replace, lead service lines — that at a time when the state’s growing population demands a supply of water the state doesn’t yet have.
Dividing the water has long been one of the most contentious policy issues in the American West, let alone ensuring it is clean and the pipes are functioning properly. And communities with the greatest needs are often the least equipped to capitalize on funding opportunities.
Texas officials at the state and local level are exploring ways to ensure the state’s patchwork of pipes and treatment centers function properly. Among the strategies is adding money to fund repairs, providing technical assistance for smaller communities and encouraging collaboration among water systems.
Senate Bill 28, the nearly all-encompassing water bill authored by Republican Sen. Charles Perry of Lubbock, includes the Texas Water Fund, which would finance projects to develop more sources of water to cover 7 million acres of land by the end of 2033. The bill also addresses other worries, such as funds for infrastructure improvements.
But with water utilities under increasing pressure, experts say the state will need to get creative when it comes to addressing water issues.
Paying for upkeep isn’t easy
Kelley Holcomb is no stranger to Texas’ water struggles. Born in Cherokee County, the lifelong East Texan has been in the water business for four decades, working his way up to his current position as general manager of the Angelina and Neches River Authority. The governmental entity is responsible for preserving and distributing water from the state’s third-largest river basin.
Early in his career, Holcomb spent weeks driving across East Texas collecting water and sewer samples from public water systems to test for bacteria. The experience showed him just how poor water quality can be — and just how expensive it can be to remedy. In some cases, he watched those costs overwhelm a system to such a degree that the people running it needed help.
“It all starts with no money,” Holcomb said of the downward spiral some water systems find themselves in.
Getting more money is not straightforward. If water systems increase their rates, they often face backlash from residents frustrated with higher bills and no immediate fix to the frequent boil-water notices and water quality issues they have experienced for years. In small towns, those residents who complain about the water are neighbors or even family members.
Communities can also apply for highly-coveted loans or grants from the state or the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but only if they know about those opportunities and have the resources to complete the paperwork.
To obtain a federal loan, a system generally has to demonstrate the ability to both repay the loan and maintain their system after the loan runs dry. Repaying the loan may require increasing water rates. Grants require detailed financial records and thorough planning, two things that small water systems with few employees struggle with.
“Sometimes we go into communities, and some of their financial records are in shoeboxes,” said Martha Claire Bullen, sustainability director for Communities Unlimited, a nonprofit that supports rural communities across seven states. “They haven’t digitized them, or they haven’t gotten them in a way that they can easily put them together for a grant application.”
Bullen was born and raised in Mississippi and moved temporarily to Nacogdoches in January to advance civic infrastructure in Deep East Texas through a partnership with the T.L.L. Temple Foundation. Part of the $3.1 million project aims to address the resource strains of small, rural water systems. Bullen’s team offers technical assistance to rural public water systems, which can include walking through a financial audit or even motivating the community to consider applying for a grant.
State lawmakers have recognized the need for support in rural communities. SB 28, the largest water bill this session, requires the Texas Water Development Board to establish a technical assistance program to help public utilities in rural areas apply for grants and loans, administered by the board.
The bill also creates two new pots of money — one focused on funding new water supply projects and a second, more flexible fund for projects including water infrastructure repairs in rural areas.
There is a small catch, though — Texas voters will have to agree that water is worthy of a multibillion-dollar investment. If the bill passes and is signed by the governor, this November’s election will include a constitutional amendment authorizing the Texas Water Fund.
Perry said he is confident voters will approve of the measure and that it will pave the way for further investment in water projects down the line.
“Anytime you get a constitutional amendment, it really changes the conversation for future budgets,” Perry said. “It sends a strong message that voters want this.”
A constitutional amendment also allows lawmakers to avert hitting the spending cap this year. The state constitution limits how much additional money the state can spend every two years.
In a recent poll, 89% of Texas voters said they were in favor of using $5 billion, or about 15%, of the budget surplus to fix aging infrastructure. Jeremy Mazur, senior policy adviser with Texas 2036, estimates that the real price tag for all of the state’s water infrastructure needs would be more than $150 billion. Mazur and other water advocates estimate that the fund would need to start with an initial investment of $3-5 billion.
The size of the new water funds is yet to be determined. SB 28 passed the Senate unanimously last month with a $1 billion budget rider. The House has proposed $3 billion. It is also not yet clear how much of the proposed funding would go toward new water supply projects and how much would fund infrastructure repairs.
Perry said no amount of money allocated this year will be enough to address the magnitude of Texas’ water problems.
“We’re going to put in what we put in at this time knowing full well that this is a multigenerational problem,” he said. “The bigger picture is that we’ve started the process to have the conversation.”
Florida policy may help Texas’ smallest water agencies
If Texas is serious about keeping its water infrastructure stable, it must address the needs of thousands of small systems that provide services to residents across the state.
Carlos Rubinstein, a former chair of the Texas Water Development Board, has looked to Florida for a possible solution to small and rural communities’ water problems. There, a government entity has facilitated cooperation among small, struggling utility companies who lack the budgets or resources to handle the growing costs of providing safe drinking water to the public.
The Florida Governmental Utility Association began as an agreement between four counties and has since expanded to provide drinking water and wastewater services to about 250,000 customers across 14 counties, said Robert Sheets, who helped create the agency 24 years ago.
Sheets, a native Texan, testified in front of the Texas House’s Natural Resources Committee during an interim hearing last September. He said the association is the largest single-purpose government entity in Florida, focused exclusively on water and wastewater, and that a similar system could work in Texas.
“I’ve spent two years trying to assess the real needs here, and they are identical in so many ways to Florida,” Sheets told the Tribune. Both states have a large rural population and a proliferation of small water systems.
Under Texas law, utility agencies can already cooperate with one another. They are often hesitant to do so for fear of losing control over their water system.
Rubinstein spearheaded efforts to create a bill to allay those concerns. House Bill 2701, authored by Rep. Ryan Guillen, R-Rio Grande City, would allow public water and wastewater utilities to gain economies of scale by operating under a single public utility agency, Guillen said during a public hearing.
The bill seeks to address concerns about control by spelling out the fact that entities can join and leave the agency of their own accord.
“2701 does not mandate regionalization or consolidation,” Rubinstein said during a House Natural Resources Committee hearing. “It is strictly a mechanism for small and disadvantaged communities to come together to cooperate for a regional solution.”
The bill passed unanimously in the House Tuesday and is now heading to Senate lawmakers. An identical bill was filed in the Senate by Sen. Morgan LaMantia, a Democrat from South Padre Island.
Even if the bill passes, Sheets said, getting rural water providers to collaborate is not necessarily an easy sell.
“Every city and county out there, with a few exceptions, takes great pride in their water and sewer operation,” Sheets said. “They are very possessive of it.”
He continued: “Cities and counties are just not going to inherently give up or invite somebody in to run and operate their utilities unless there’s a real compelling reason to do so.”
Consolidation is already occurring in some parts of the state — largely out of crisis. At the Angelina and Neches River Authority, Holcomb has overseen three acquisitions of water systems in East Texas. And lawmakers have passed a bill that would allow the authority to take over a fourth failing water system from the city of Nacogdoches.
Typically, buyers and sellers of water or wastewater systems must obtain approval for the transfer from the Public Utilities Commission, an arduous process that can take years. Acquiring the system through legislative action can expedite the takeover. HB 2701 would allow water systems to collaborate without the need for legislative or administrative approval.
Holcomb said that the reason the river authority has taken on aging water systems is because they or their customers reach out.
“The recent surge in taking on these failed water systems is just because we kept getting phone calls — ‘We need help. We need help. We need help,’” Holcomb said.
Consolidation or regionalization may not be a solution for every water system, Rubinstein said, but it offers another option for small water systems.
“Is it a silver bullet?” Rubinstein said. “In water, we all know there is no such thing as a silver bullet. It is a viable extra tool that should absolutely be considered.”
How a West Texas city and suburb work together
Proactive collaboration among the state’s smaller cities and towns is happening even in areas where water supply is scarce. One partnership could provide a map for regionalization efforts on a bigger scale.
In the High Plains, where the climate is becoming drier and water supply is declining, Lubbock leaders seemed to have secured water for the future of their own community and then some with Lake Alan Henry.
Lake Alan Henry is an oasis in the otherwise arid region. Located in the upper Brazos River Basin and in Garza County — 65 miles southeast of Lubbock, the lake can hold 40 billion gallons of water and is one of Lubbock’s main sources for water since it refills quickly. Purchased for $215 million, it’s one of Lubbock’s largest investments.
“It was very expensive,” said Jarrett Atkinson, Lubbock’s city manager. “But generations past me are still going to be using that to supply our needs here.”
Securing Lubbock’s future water does more than just benefit the city of more than 260,000 people. The city has various water agreements with surrounding communities, including Shallowater, Littlefield, Ransom Canyon and Buffalo Springs. And, most recently, Wolfforth.
Beginning June 1, Wolfforth’s water supply will be bolstered by the ability to purchase 500,000 gallons of water a day from Lubbock, which increases to 750,000 gallons in 2026. Paired with another contract that will give the town an additional 2 million gallons, things are about to change for Wolfforth.
This time last year was already a scary situation for those in Wolfforth. With a crushing drought hitting more than 80% of the state, it was hard for the city to get more water from their nearby wells. It could take a day or two, depending on how much water the community was using while the city tried to refill their tank.
The water from Lubbock will be treated by the time it makes its way into Wolfforth’s faucets, alleviating some pressure on the town’s water system. Even though Wolfforth’s current water treatment plant is 6 years old, they are designing a bigger water treatment plant to hold all the water that will be flowing in soon.
“All of a sudden, Wolfforth has gone from this little community where water was scarce, to a community that isn’t going to be water scarce at all,” said Randy Criswell, Wolfforth’s city manager.
While Wolfforth’s future is taking a new direction, there are still long-term concerns for the Brazos. Many wonder if the water can keep up with increasing demands from urban, suburban and industrial growth. Over in Lubbock, Atkinson is confident that their plans can keep up with future needs and the fluctuations of their water sources.
The city is also looking to create new streams of water, starting with an unlikely source — cheese. Leprino Foods is building a plant that will buy 1.3 million gallons of water a day from Lubbock. It will then recycle and treat about 2 million gallons of water daily and sell that back to the city.
“It’s a net gain of water that wasn’t even in the models,” Atkinson explained.
Rather than sticking to the rugged individualism mentality that Texas is known for, the city is willing and ready to spread the wealth when it comes to Lubbock’s water supply. In the case of Wolfforth’s agreement, Atkinson said even the future 750,000 gallons is roughly 2.1% of Lubbock’s daily water use. He doesn’t see the need for a contentious battle over water.
“It’s not a burden to the system, and it doesn’t require us to go out and develop additional supply in order to do this,” Atkinson said. “We’re in a position to do it, and it does not have to have a downside for the city of Lubbock’s water system.”
The city is also willing to spare water because of how the two cities are growing closer and closer toward each other. With just a 10-minute drive between, it’s common to find Lubbock residents at the Wolfforth Farmers Market or Wolfforth residents at Lubbock’s First Friday Art Trail.
“It’s an extremely tight and close relationship,” Atkinson said. “Ultimately, what’s good for Lubbock and what’s good for Wolfforth are going to end up being the same thing.”
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