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Terlingua water managers lift advisories, say tap water is safe to drink

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

Terlingua water managers on Friday lifted an advisory that had been in place for more than a week warning the public to avoid the area’s tap water, saying lab tests have confirmed the water is safe to drink.

The Study Butte Water Supply Corporation simultaneously lifted a separate boil water notice that had also been in effect, the nonprofit entity said on its website.

The warnings were the result of a cascading series of problems the water supplier experienced with its two drinking water wells in September that led to residents and businesses served by the corporation almost running out of tap water completely in October. The corporation has since reported that both wells are fully operational and filling supply tanks to “normal levels.”

According to a lengthy timeline of events from Study Butte Water, the problems began when one well broke down in early September. While that well was offline, the supplier’s only other well also stopped pumping during multiple power outages.

As a result, the area’s tap water supplies dropped to dangerously low levels, prompting Study Butte Water to issue a call for conservation on Oct. 9 aimed at preventing a “catastrophic failure of the water system.”

Facing a potential crisis, local officials and the water supplier rushed to haul in drinking water from surrounding communities, but it was that move that ultimately prompted the nearly two-week long warning to avoid the water for anything other than flushing toilets.

State regulators at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality quickly raised concerns about the water system being potentially contaminated because the trucks used to haul in the emergency water supplies were not certified to do so.

“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,” TCEQ spokesperson Victoria Cann previously told Marfa Public Radio.

Throughout the ordeal, some local officials disputed the notion that improper trucks were used.

“All these trucks that have hauled water were water haulers,” Brewster County Judge Greg Henington, the top local elected official, said in an interview earlier this month.

Henington praised the water supplier’s response to the situation, but said the way it played out would likely be a “lesson for the future.”

“Obviously, it’s a small community and everybody chips in and says, ‘Let’s get water moving,’” he said.

Bill Gilles, Study Butte Water’s board president, said in an interview this week that the water supplier is reviewing how the situation with the trucks unfolded and how a similar one could be avoided in the future.

“We are going to develop a plan,” he said. “We’re going to do an emergency preparedness manual.”

Like Henington, he said the water supplier is hoping to submit documents to TCEQ refuting regulators’ claims that improper water trucks were used.

Throughout the ordeal, Gilles also insisted that he personally did not have concerns about the water’s safety or the potential for it being contaminated.

“I was drinking the water,” Gilles said Wednesday at a Study Butte Water board meeting, where board members discussed a variety of longer-term improvement projects that are in the works.

The water supplier is planning multiple upgrades to its system, board members said, ranging from new generators to a complete replacement of one of the wells.

At Wednesday’s meeting, board members also addressed concerns about the safety warnings not being widely distributed enough. An employee of the Family Crisis Center of the Big Bend told the board that some people in the area simply didn’t know about the notices. (After the public meeting, the employee asked to not be named by Marfa Public Radio because they were not authorized to speak on behalf of the organization.)

“I have people that come to our crisis center, they do not have internet, and they are definitely drinking the water,” the employee said. “What if you had E. coli in the system and they could get sick from it? They’re living out of their cars in the middle of the desert.”

Board members responded in part by saying they were looking into getting water alerts sent out through the county’s text alerts system.

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