Expansion overview given at town hall

Infrastructure expansion dominated discussion during a town hall meeting that sought to bring Ector County Utility District officials and customers on the same page, but many attendees left discontent with the information they received.

Engineering and finance consultants who work with the utility district used the majority of the meeting Thursday to clarify the factors that are driving board members to take action, what projects are needed to relieve system deficiencies and how ECUD plans to finance development in West Odessa.

The utility district was established in 1976 and has had an ongoing history of low water pressure concerns.

Ector County Utility District President Tommy Ervin said board members realized in 2013 that the water system could not keep up with the population growth occurring in the district.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality requires public water systems to maintain a set of minimum operating practices, including maintaining a normal operating pressure of 35 pounds per square inch throughout the system.

Ervin said acting now is important because the utility district is on the edge of that minimum requirement with some areas experiencing water pressure as low as 38 psi.

ECUD took steps to find viable options that would enhance their system’s operation and developed a master water plan that is expected to meet current and future customer needs for the next 25 years.

The master water plan was drafted and designed by the Fort Worth engineering firm Kimley-Horn.

“The biggest thing for me was to ensure the system was compliant with state standards,” John Atkins of Kimley-Horn said. “What we’ve tried to do is minimize the amount of infrastructure that ECUD would have to pay for to get this system compliant with TCEQ.”

Residents who attended the town hall were taken on a virtual tour of West Odessa to see exactly where proposed improvements and pipelines would be located. The digital rendering showed two water towers added on Knox Avenue and Tripp Avenue, toward the Interstate Highway 20 border of the utility district, and a pump station located on 42nd Street.

Chris Ekrut of NewGen Strategies & Solutions presented information that detailed the financial commitments ECUD would have to make in order to execute the master water plan.

The district has applied for a $45.7 million loan from the Texas Water Development Board, which provides water planning resources and loans to local governments for water supply and quality projects. Through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund loan program, ECUD is eligible to use the agency’s loan funding to upgrade their water infrastructure.

Ekrut said the advantage of this form of funding is that ECUD receives a lower interest rate than if they borrowed the money from another source. He said the estimated savings to the district total about $13 million over the 30-year life of the loan.

As of last month, the loan application was administratively complete by ECUD and is undergoing review by TWDB staff. Final approval on the loan is not expected until November or later.

“The board is looking through all of this documentation, they’re looking through all the records of the district, they’re sending people out to talk to district personnel and what they’re trying to gauge and measure is the financial, managerial and technical capability of the district to take on this project,” Ekrut said.

The process is like qualifying for a mortgage when buying a house.

“They’re going to compare (your income) to what you’re trying to borrow and make sure that you have enough money and that you have the capability to pay back the debt,” Ekrut said.

He said water rate increases placed on customers in February have been necessary to demonstrate that the district can generate enough revenue to repay the loan.

“If we cannot get funding from the board, that doesn’t absolve you or the district from doing this project,” Ekrut told the audience. “The project still has to happen because the state says these are the requirements and you have to meet those. “If we can’t get funding from the board, we’ve got to look elsewhere and that drives the interest rates up and that drives the cost up.”

Robert Chacon, a West Odessa resident, said there should be exemptions for senior citizens on fixed incomes and those that use less water.

“I’m using 10 gallons of water a month to water a couple of trees on an empty lot,” Chacon said. “I used to pay $27 and now I’m paying $77. It just doesn’t seem fair.”

The utility district provided handouts for seniors at the town hall that listed local programs that provide assistance with utility payments.

Jeannie Blankinship is another county resident whose question for board members centered on what they are doing to communicate with customers.

Blankinship said grassroots efforts should not be the main way residents receive information and emphasized the district’s need for a website to consistently relay messages to customers.

“You can’t leave your communication part out, that’s where everything crumbles,” Blankinship said.

Several other residents after the presentation said they remained unconvinced that the infrastructure improvements were even necessary.