This story was first published by the Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

During a community meeting in July, residents of four unincorporated communities south of the Texas Panhandle held mason jars filled with brown, cloudy water — visual evidence of the water quality issues that have for decades plagued the more than 300 residents of these rural West Texas communities.

Situated in the outskirts of Lubbock and Shallowater, residents of the four developments have received regular notices of water quality violations from the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality, the state’s environmental agency. Elevated levels of fluoride, arsenic, perfluoroalkyl, and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals have made the water undrinkable for nearly two decades, according to TCEQ records, leaving residents to rely on bottled water.

About 65 residents attended the July meeting to create the South Plains Water Supply Corporation, a collaborative public entity that makes the four housing developments eligible to compete for regional, state, and federal funding. The newly formed organization, run by a board of directors who represent all four subdivisions, is working quickly to meet an Aug. 31 deadline to apply for approximately $3.3 million from the Texas Water Development Board.

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If they receive it, the board plans to use the money to repair broken water treatment and filtration systems.

The regions’ water issues are not unique. A 2016 report found that 65 Texas water systems contained excessive levels of arsenic, exposing about 51,000 Texans to the contaminant. Most of those systems were clustered in rural parts of West Texas.

Financial help is on the way. Texas has been allocated approximately $2.5 billion in federal funding earmarked for water infrastructure through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. And the state also allocated more than $2 billion to increase water supplies, fix failing infrastructure, and prevent flooding. One billion of that will go toward the New Water Supply for Texas Fund and the Texas Water Fund if voters approve the idea in the fall election.

“Every so often, water systems need capital improvements,” said Ken Rainwater, a Lubbock-based civil engineer who is serving as an engineering consultant for the new corporation. “A big city can just pay for it out of use fees or by selling municipal bonds, but these little systems need access to grant funds or low interest loans.”

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Part of the problem stems from the 2021 Winter Storm Uri. The freeze caused some of the communities’ water issues because their treatment plants were not properly weatherized, Rainwater said. Other contamination issues have existed for longer and became a problem when TCEQ lowered the maximum allowable levels of arsenic and fluoride.

Before the South Plains Water Supply Corporation formed, the state stepped in after an April 2021 investigation revealed that the owner and operator of the four water systems had died and that the new operator had suffered a medical emergency. Since then, TCEQ has appointed an independent company to temporarily manage the deteriorating, abandoned water systems. Emergency orders to appoint temporary managers are uncommon, a TCEQ spokesperson said. And a temporary manager does not own the utility; instead, they are only given the powers and duties necessary to provide continuous and adequate service.

“They aren’t even a local entity so they aren’t motivated to improve the situation for us,” Deborah Hunt, a resident of Town North Estates and secretary-treasurer of South Plains Water Supply Corporation, said of the temporary manager. “And so now we’ve come together to try to get quality water.”

Hunt said she hasn’t drank the water in years because of its poor taste and that she and her neighbors have also dealt with low water pressure.

The South Plains partnership was inspired in part by work in Florida, where small water utilities have worked together to improve their systems.

“What nobody can afford to do now is wait,” said Robert Sheets, who founded the Florida Governmental Utility Association, an entity that provides water and wastewater services across 14 Florida counties. Sheets is now assisting the South Plains Water Supply Corporation to address their water issues. “We have to take a quilt approach and get the local governments to work together in a collaborative fashion to address their issues.”

During the most recent legislative session, Sheets was part of an effort to pass House Bill 2701, which would allow public water and wastewater utilities to join forces to save money and create efficiencies, similar to the one Sheets created in Florida. The bill made it out of the House but died in the Senate.

Sheets believes that regionalization and consolidation can help Texas address some of their water issues, including aging water infrastructure, leaking pipes, and recurring boil-water notices. Texas has a proliferation of small, rural water systems that struggle with limited budgets and personnel. They are also disqualified from certain loans because they don’t have sufficient funds to repay the loan, and they often don’t have enough personnel to complete time-intensive grant applications.

Although HB 2701 did not pass, Sheets and Carlos Rubinstein, a former chair of the Texas Water Development Board, said they plan to reintroduce the legislation during the next regular session.

In the meantime, they said they’ll do what they can to support small water systems — including the new South Plains Water Supply Corporation.