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Travis County takes action to eliminate ‘water colonias’

Monday, January 13, 2020 by Jack Craver

While it’s accurately referred to as an urban county, roughly half of Travis County does not fall within the limits of any municipality. The population in these rural, unincorporated areas is growing rapidly, driven in part by a lack of affordable housing in urban areas, particularly within the city of Austin.

In some cases, groups of houses have sprung up that are not platted according to county standards and do not receive water and wastewater service.

Las Lomitas, which is made up of several dozen homes in southeastern Travis County, is one such community. The residents there have long relied on their own septic systems for wastewater and have installed their own running water systems that they fill up with water from a county-owned tap at a nominal fee of 25 cents per 100 gallons.

While the water is not considered safe for drinking, some residents may be drinking it anyway. It can be used for cooking, bathing, washing, sewage and other key household functions.

Last year, the county, concerned about businesses using the tap for commercial purposes, moved to dramatically increase the price to more than $12 per 100 gallons. Las Lomitas residents showed up at the Commissioners Court, pleading with their elected officials to spare them from a devastating price hike for a basic necessity.

At the end of last year, the Commissioners Court approved a temporary solution – the price hike will still go into effect in March but residents at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level will be eligible for a discounted rate that is half the regular price.

The long-term goal, however, is to eliminate what officials refer to as “water colonias” by hooking up communities like Las Lomitas to standard water service. It’s not clear how many exist, but at least “several” are in eastern Travis County, Cynthia McDonald, Travis County executive for Transportation and Natural Resources, told the Austin Monitor.

County officials met recently with the Creedmoor-Maha Water Supply Company, a private water utility that serves many nearby homes, to see what could be done about Las Lomitas.

“We have had some good, positive feedback from the folks out there,” Commissioner Margaret Gómez said at Tuesday’s meeting of the Commissioners Court. “And so I think for the very first time in a long, long time it sounds like, yeah, this is going to be a possibility.”

One potential challenge for the utility is figuring out how to lay the pipe to service the homes, many of which are on “flag lots,” where one long driveway from the road leads to multiple houses.

“You gotta run a line 1,200 feet, 2,000 feet back to where the home is,” explained McDonald. “It can be very cost-prohibitive.”

Fortunately, some of the residents of Las Lomitas have volunteered to help dig the necessary ditches and lay the pipe.

“We don’t know how this is going to work out,” McDonald clarified. “Creedmoor-Maha is looking at the best way to bring the lines to the front of the properties. We’re trying to figure out how to help the community bring the lines to the homes.”

On Tuesday, the commissioners agreed it would be a good idea to write to Creedmoor-Maha to encourage the company to serve Las Lomitas.

Whether or not the plan works out, the court has already signed off on a plan to turn off the spigot residents are currently using at the end of this year. County Judge Sarah Eckhardt has said private sector alternatives are “price competitive” with the county’s recently increased rate.

Photo by Anita Martinz from Klagenfurt, Austria [CC-BY-2.0].

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