Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Water wars come to Texas

Yes, West Virginians have much bigger problems, and the national media ignores them, but what's happening in South Texas is a harbinger of battles to come.

Schools are closed in a one-stoplight South Texas town after the city shut off their water amid a dispute over the bill.

The city of La Villa shut off water and sewer service to the La Villa Independent School District in December, shortly after students started their holiday break. The city had increased a water surcharge and the school district has refused to pay the higher rate.

The district's approximately 625 students were supposed to return to classes Monday, but instead found this message on the school district's website: "All La Villa I.S.D. schools will be closed until further notice."

Students raising pigs at the district farm just behind the baseball field had to find new homes for their projects. The boys and girls basketball teams have had their home games converted to away games until the dispute is resolved. They beg court time for practices from other area districts. Seniors fret — perhaps prematurely — over whether they might be forced to finish out their final year in another district.

"It's a really sad situation knowing they can't come to terms," said Angie Reyna, who on Monday coaxed her daughter Amanda, a senior in La Villa, into coming to work at a relative's drive-thru convenience store in Elsa on Monday.

South Texas Chisme has been on the case, and the Republican candidates for Texas agriculture commissioner are even starting to come around... when their attention can be directed away from abortion and Duck Dynasty, that is. (Yoo hoo, Tex Trib: even the Dems are talking about water).

The dispute has been festering for more than a year in the town of about 2,000, 25 miles east of McAllen. In December 2011, the city approved adding a surcharge for water and sewer service to the school district on top of the usage rate. It was initially set at $10 per person — students, staff — but the district fought it down to $6 and the two sides inked an agreement in November 2012. But the city commission turned around the following month and raised the surcharge to $14.

The school district has continued paying at the $6 surcharge rate, but the city says it's more than $58,000 in arrears.

"We got here because some adults are irresponsible," said school district Superintendent Narciso Garcia.

He said the city's financial problems and decrepit water plant are well known, and that desperate commissioners are just trying to squeeze the school district to get back into the black. The school district and a private jail housing federal prisoners are the town's two main employers.

In a letter to the Texas Education Agency in December, Mayor Hector Elizondo wrote: "This was a raise in rates that was absolutely necessary in order that the City upgrade its aging utility systems and meet quality standards set by (the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality)."

What does the school district do when they can't afford to pay for the city's water? What does the city do when the water system finally peters out?

A last ditch attempt at resolving the dispute over the weekend foundered when the two sides, meeting simultaneously blocks apart from each other Saturday night, could not agree. The school district offered to pay a $7 surcharge, the city countered with $12, so the school board decided to go home.

Both sides are scheduled to appear Wednesday in Austin before the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The school district has requested an emergency order to compel the city to turn the water back on. School officials made a similar request in December, but the TCEQ declined to act then. If the TCEQ gets the water back on, Garcia said schools could reopen Friday.

These sound like small numbers, but it's what's facing every small town and school district across Texas. A crumbling infrastructure, a declining tax base, and a withering natural resource are all contributors to the crisis, and a neglectful gang of politicians just exacerbates it.

You don't suppose the state legislature could be convinced to raise some fees or taxes to address something they've already ignored for decades, do you?

Update: Yes, I am aware of the Lege's efforts in the last session to address the state's water emergency.  I am also aware of the bombast in taking credit for "solving" it.  It's not solved, and the bills passed last year are not making a difference in remediating the problems, especially as fracking and its insane water demands proceed apace throughout Texas.

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