Since its formation in 1965, Union Water Supply Corporation (Union WSC) has been the lifeline for the residents of Garciasville, La Casita, Santa Cruz, El Chaparral, El Refugio, and La Puerta in southern Starr County, Texas, located near the border of Mexico. Starr County is part of the Rio Grande Valley region, bordered by Hidalgo County to the east and Zapata County to the west.

This nonprofit system provides services to nearly 5,000 rural residents, with 1,975 water and 1,638 wastewater connections. However, over the years, the infrastructure has deteriorated significantly, posing severe risks and challenges to the community’s water supply.

Union WSC’s water treatment plant is in poor condition. The distribution pipes are deteriorated, leading to frequent breaks that expose the water to potential contamination from outside sources. The raw river pump station is also on the brink of failure due to severe erosion. These issues, combined with the region’s tremendous population growth, have underscored the urgent need for a substantial upgrade in the water infrastructure.

Recognizing the critical need for improvement, USDA Rural Development made a historic $29 million investment in Union WSC on Feb. 2, 2024. This investment, announced by State Director Lillian Salerno and U.S. Congressman Henry Cuellar in Rio Grande City, is the largest USDA grant awarded to a water system in Texas and one of the largest nationally.

The funding, comprising an $8.5 million loan and a $20.4 million grant, will propel the expansion and enhancement of Union WSC’s water infrastructure, ensuring better services and addressing the growing needs of the community.

The extensive project will include both expansion and rehabilitation of the water treatment plant. The expansion will introduce a 2.5 million gallons per day (MGD) ceramic membrane system, a new 250,000-gallon ground storage tank, Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) upgrades, and the installation of required piping and appurtenances. Electrical upgrades will encompass conduits, wiring, and control panels.

The rehabilitation efforts will address the plant’s existing infrastructure, including the decommissioning of partial backwash lagoons, lab equipment improvements, chemical building upgrades, and significant enhancements to the filters, blower system, and plant piping. Additionally, the reservoir raw water pumps and motors, along with the high-service pump and related appurtenances, will be upgraded.

The river raw water pump station will undergo crucial rehabilitation, including the stabilization of the erosion-prone structure, the replacement of three raw water pumps, and necessary erosion control measures. Moreover, the rehabilitation and upgrade of waterlines will involve decommissioning small-diameter pipes and installing 8-inch PVC pipes to ensure efficient and reliable water distribution.

Union Water Supply Corporation in Starr County, Texas recently received nearly $29 million in funding to rehabilitate their aging infrastructure.

Due to the project’s size and complexity, Union WSC faced challenges in covering pre-development costs. To address this, they requested a $1 million Pre-Development Engineering (PDE) loan from Communities Unlimited (CU). This loan, with interest-only payments for up to 24 months, will cover essential pre-development expenses such as engineering, surveys, title work, and legal fees.

In 2019, Union WSC received a $261,567 emergency loan from CU for system repairs. All payments have been timely, with a remaining balance of $185,410.77 as of May 9, 2024. The USDA plans to release funds to fully pay off this loan by early 2025.

The success of this monumental project is attributed to the collaborative efforts between Union WSC, the USDA, and CU.

“We have been waiting on this project for a long time,” Union WSC General Manager Jorge Bazan said. “It’s much needed. We’ve got to conserve water. Our small lines in the system have been breaking every other week. We’ve been losing a lot of water. We have low levels in our reservoirs right now, so we are excited about this project. It’s been a long time coming. It’s going to be a big improvement for all our customers throughout the system, providing better and more reliable services. This is exactly what our community needs.”

Raul Gonzalez, South Texas Regional Coordinator on CU’s Environmental Services Team, has been instrumental in securing funding and guiding the Union WSC project through the USDA grant and loan process. His proactive approach kept the project on track.

Jorge Negrete, a Community Environmental Management Specialist, helped manage the PDE loan from CU, ensuring all pre-development costs were covered. His coordination with Union WSC’s management and the engineering firm facilitated smooth communication and progress. Their combined efforts were crucial in advancing the project.

“This work is rewarding and it’s why I haven’t retired,” Gonzalez said. “There are at least six water supply corporations in Starr County that rely on USDA support, and USDA relies on us to provide field support. Being able to help these communities maintain compliance with state requirements and secure substantial grants to keep rates affordable is fulfilling. No bank would lend $29 million and forgive two-thirds or three-quarters of it, making this a win-win for the community and for us.”

"The current board members are driving this project forward, recognizing the need to act to prevent this project from stalling. Union WSC’s proactive board is committed to growth, especially as Starr County rapidly expands. Upgrading water lines will improve pressure, ensure fire protection, and attract business. This project is vital for the community's future."

— Jorge Negrete, Community Environmental Management Specialist

Chris Ranniger, CU Environmental Lender, praised the dedication of Gonzalez and Negrete in facilitating the loan, ensuring that Union WSC could tap into the USDA funds.

“Raul and Jorge did a great job of working with me and Union WSC to help get this loan done,” Ranniger said. “I’m so excited that CU can provide funding to help Union WSC get started on this huge USDA project.”

Without the PDE loan, the engineering company and attorneys working on Union WSC’s project would progress slowly due to limited funds. The loan from CU provides the financial resources to accelerate the project timeline. This funding will enable partial payments to the engineers, ensuring continuous progress and allowing the project to start by August 2024. The bidding process for selecting contractors is expected to begin by late August or early September, keeping the project on track.

Bazan offered high praise for the work of CU’s South Texas team.

“I’ve been working with Raul for nine years,” Bazan said. “He is informative. He helped us with our rate study. I met Jorge about six months ago. I’m proud of the work we have been able to do together. They have been helpful. They are on top of everything. They let you know what’s going on, what’s coming in. Anything you need, they have been willing to help in any way.”

This comprehensive project, expected to span over two years, will secure the water supply system, enhance capacity, and ensure reliable and safe water for the residents of southern Starr County for the next 30 to 40 years.

“I want to thank you guys for allowing this entity to borrow this money. It’s a huge project, but people are excited. Our board is excited. We have board members that have been on for over a decade. They have been waiting on this for a long time. We are glad to be moving at a faster pace with this project.”

— Jorge Bazan, Union Water Supply Corporation General Manager