While El Paso County will continue to own its East Montana Water system, the management of the water agency is in the process of being transferred to the El Paso Water utility.

The El Paso County Commissioners Court voted unanimously last week to transfer the management of the county’s water systems to the city’s water utility.

The county will still own the East Montana Water system due to federal grant funding requirements, but the utility has “complete authority” to maintain, operate, repair and manage the systems which extend outside city limits.

At different points since 2011, El Paso Water entered into contracts with the county to provide wholesale water for communities outside the city limits. This new contract supersedes previous agreements, putting them into one document. The contract will remain in place for 40 years.

The change in management was years in the making, Norma Rivera Palacios, the Public Works director for the county, said last week.

“We’ve worked extensively on this contract; we feel very comfortable that this is what we need,” she said. “We will be bringing the rates for the (commissioners) court’s approval every year.”

That’s unlike other El Paso Water customers, whose pay rates are set by the Public Service Board. Instead, the contract says the utility will recommend rates for the Commissioners Court to approve or modify. The county is also in charge of funding any large-scale improvements to the system.

County customers should expect their monthly bill to remain the same, averaging about $70 for water and sewer costs, said Denise Parra, a spokesperson for El Paso Water. The average county bill also includes a $18.23 refuse charge, Parra said.

El Paso Water fleet outside the utility headquarters. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

“The County sets the customer rates,” Para said. “(Rates) are calculated to generate enough revenue to cover wholesale charges from EPWater for maintaining the system, infrastructure improvements and debt service.”

El Paso Water is charging the county a service fee of a little more than $4 per customer, in addition to the price of wholesale water. That fee, according to the contract, will go toward additional billing, service costs and for the utility to pay people to manage the system. Three county employees currently operate the system.

About 2,400 people live in four areas that include pipelines, pump stations and water storage tanks owned by the county.

Schuman Estates, Mayfair and Nuway are on one system, Colonia Revolucion the second and Square Dance (aka Desert Acceptance) is the third system — and the only one with both sewer and water. The remaining system is called East Montana.

Currently, only 315 households in Square Dance have sewer connections in the system, but the contract anticipates expansion to at least 437 households.

The 22-page contract also incorporates the future Hillcrest Estates development on the east side, where residents currently don’t have access to water, or sewer services. In May 2021, the North American Development Bank awarded a $1.6 million grant towards a $3.2 million-dollar project to bring water services to the area.

Future communities can be added to the county’s contract with El Paso Water.

Cover photo: The El Paso Water headquarters on Hawkins Drive. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

Danielle Prokop is a climate change and environment reporter with El Paso Matters. She’s covered climate, local government and community at the Scottsbluff Star-Herald in Nebraska and the Santa Fe New...