The Water Main Man: Bringing order to the chaos of a public utility out of control
General Manager, Homestead Municipal Utility District, El Paso, Texas
City and suburban dwellers who take abundant running water for granted may not be quite able to grasp what Ron Rodenhaver found when he arrived at his job as general manager of the Homestead Municipal Utility District in El Paso County, Texas, in April 1993. The acronym for the utility, MUD, was only too appropriate.
The drinking water wasn't the sweet, clean refreshment most people expect when they fill up a glass. Residents were told to boil it for drinking. High levels of mineral deposits clogged pumps.
And water often would simply run out because the system had so little storage capacity. Too many people had been connected with wild abandon to an overtaxed water system in a hot and dry region. Worse, 330 households were still waiting even to get hooked up to the system; many of them filled 55-gallon drums at a local grocery or a relative's house, or had water trucked in and stored in 900-gallon tanks.
Not that those who were connected always had the better deal. With no elevated water tanks, there often wasn't enough water pressure for a shower or a drink from the faucet. When thunderstorms or other problems knocked out power, the water system crashed because electric pumps died. Some homes burned down for lack of fire hydrants and water pressure. The state had placed a moratorium on any more connections until water quantity, quality and distribution were improved. The utility's operations were such a mess, in fact, that the Texas attorney general filed suit.
That's when Rodenhaver was brought in from Horizon City, 15 miles away, where he had been manager of the water district. He quickly put the brakes on a downhill skid, stabilizing a declining system that serves Homestead's colonias--low-income areas that developed haphazardly on raw land with no services. He straightened out the record-keeping system and found state and federal funds to buy elevated and ground storage tanks, along with bigger pumps. He got the state Water Development Board to lend the utility money to refinance $1.2 million in bonds, reducing the interest rate and allowing residents' property taxes for water to be cut 30 percent.
Within less then two years, most of the water system's problems had been ironed out. Now, with half-million gallons of new water storage, water no longer runs out. "Nothing is working well, but it works a heck of a lot better than it did," Rodenhaver says. "Whatever it takes to get water to people out here, we will do it."
And there is more to do. The whole water distribution system is next on Rodenhaver's plate. His plans are to have a completely new system in place by December of next year. To do that, he's overseeing a complex deal involving federal, state, county and utility resources and responsibilities
The El Paso water utility will run a line out to the colonias so they can get better quality water from that city's system. El Paso County plans to buy out the 13 private small water systems in the Homestead area that operate with a whole array of different size pumps, motors, tanks and wells in varying condition. The Homestead utility district then would maintain and operate the whole system, buying water from the El Paso Public Service Board and selling it to the other water systems.
Not everyone's pleased with Rodenhaver's actions. Developers say he's stunting development by enforcing the current moratorium on more water connections. But those who've struggled under the old patchworked system see the benefits. "He turned the system around from nothing," says Lorenzo Barrios, who chairs the Homestead Municipal Utility District's board of directors. "Everyone's going to have equal amounts of pressure and will be drinking good drinking water."
— Ellen Perlman
Photo by Joel Salcido/Black Star