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Terlingua water managers advise public to not consume water amid concerns about possible contamination

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Hannah Gentiles for Marfa Public Radio
A view of Highway 118 in south Brewster County in 2022.

Water managers in Brewster County are advising the public to not drink or use tap water in the Terlingua area due to concerns about possible contamination.

In an advisory issued Saturday that remained in effect on Monday, the Study Butte Water Supply Corporation advised residents and businesses served by the corporation to avoid using their tap water for anything but flushing toilets.

The advisory was the culmination of a series of problems involving the corporation’s two drinking water wells in recent days.

The water supplier, a nonprofit entity, said in notices issued over the past week that its water supply had fallen to dangerously low levels because of one well briefly going offline and another well that was already offline and awaiting repairs.

In response, local officials rushed to truck water in from surrounding communities to avoid the Terlingua area running out of drinking water. But over the weekend, officials said in interviews, regulators at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality determined that the trucks used to haul water were not properly designated to do so.

“Due to the use of vehicles that are not rated for potable water transport contaminates and/or chemicals have potentially been introduced to the water supply, possibly making it dangerous to consume or come into contact with,” the advisory issued Saturday said. “The water can continue to be used for non-potable purposes but human consumption and bodily contact should be avoided.”

The advisory cautioned against anyone trying to treat the water themselves, saying such efforts “will not make the water safer.”

Still, in an interview, the water supply corporation’s board president Bill Gilles disputed the notion of any problems with the trucks. Gilles said the corporation was working to gather documentation to show the TCEQ the trucks were appropriate for transporting drinking water.

“They have a certain notice that you have to put out,” he said. “For some reason they think, ‘oh my God, something else may have gotten in these trucks,’ and that’s their call, they can do that, and we’re complying with everything that they’re telling us to do.”

In an email, TCEQ confirmed Saturday’s water advisory was issued after the trucks were used to haul in water.

“Because the unapproved water haulers may have introduced unknown microbial or chemical contamination to the system, a Do Not Use notice was issued by SBWSC for the protection of public health,” spokesperson Victoria Cann said, adding the agency “will continue to provide assistance until the system is back online.”

Gilles said the water’s safety will have to be confirmed by tests before the advisory can be lifted. The corporation was planning to hand deliver testing samples to Odessa or beyond in the coming days.

“We’re gonna substantiate to the TCEQ that all these trucks have only carried water,” said Brewster County Judge Greg Henington, the county’s top elected official.

Last week, Henington issued a local disaster declaration related to the water problems, though it’s expected to expire this week. Henington said officials are offering bottled water to those who need it at the Terlingua Fire & EMS Station, but limiting supplies to one case of water per household.

The water outage has impacted restaurants and other businesses in south county at the start of the busy fall tourist season.

Sara Allen Colando, county commissioner for the Terlingua area, said some restaurants were running on limited menus, while at least one had closed down completely.

“It’s definitely put a hurt on most of the economy out here,” she said. “This is kind of a new one for us, but we did have a loss of water supply five, six years ago.”

Colando praised the water supplier’s efforts to address the problem.

“I know that getting this corrected is a top priority for them, and I have faith in their desire to get this fixed as quickly as possible,” she said.

The water supply corporation will hold a public meeting about the situation on Thursday, Oct. 19 at 6 p.m. at the Red Patillo Community Center.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.