Texas environmental regulators last month fined Dell City about $11,000 for drinking water monitoring violations that occurred since 2018, including failing to properly check for lead and copper levels, or document the chlorine levels found throughout the water treatment system — problems which have continued into this year.

The fine against the Hudspeth County city of about 300 residents stems from its failure to provide residents annual notifications for testing, and for not submitting water samples to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for parts of 2018, 2019 and 2020.

The city has been without a full-time water operator since May.

“Before our employee retired, he tried to send some samples and never followed through and so we’re in the process of trying to do the required sampling for lead and copper for this year,” City Secretary Natalie Guillen said in a phone interview.

TECQ notices posted at Dell City Hall in July noted that the city has failed to provide lead and copper samples or to submit quarterly chlorine disinfectant reports since January 2022.

Lead and copper levels in drinking water are regulated under the Environmental Protection Agency rule, which requires water systems to test for the chemicals used in constructing older water systems. There is no safe level of lead exposure, according to the EPA, and copper is limited to about 1.3 milligrams per liter.

Lead exposure through drinking water can cause damage to the brain, red blood cells and kidneys, according to the EPA, and is especially dangerous to children and pregnant women.

Tests since 2009 in Dell City listed in TCEQ’s database do not show dangerous levels of the mineral.

There is no current boil-water advisory for residents, nor any other TCEQ warnings that the city’s water is unsafe to drink.

“As far as our drinking water, it’s being treated and we’re doing our monthly water sample as needed,” Guillen said.

The chance of dangerous levels of lead and copper seeping into West Texas drinking water is relatively low because the region’s hard water is less corrosive to pipes, said Steve Walden, chair of the small systems division at the Texas American Water Works Association, a professional organization on water systems.

But Dell City’s struggles point to a bigger problem across the state, Walden said, as small water systems are barely able to keep the staff needed for day-to-day management, which increases risks to drinking water quality.

“It’s been a crisis all along,” he said. “Nobody knows it, but folks like this who live in it know about it.”

He pointed to lower wages compared to private sector jobs and said a nationwide shortage of water professionals makes it even harder for smaller water systems to hire or retain operators.

Dell City hired a temporary certified water operator in September to properly test its water up to twice a month, Guillen said. The city is working to train a full-time replacement who can be hired once TCQE-certified, she added.

Small water systems — those with 3,300 or less connections — make up nearly 78% of Texas’ water systems, serving more than 2.5 million people, Walden said. 

“There’s a bunch of these little communities and mobile home parks where the blue-collar people can live on the edge of metro areas, which are providing the vital service of affordable housing,” he said.

Much of the land in Dell City, which sits about 80 miles east of El Paso, is owned by El Paso Water Utilities as part of a plan to eventually pump water into El Paso. An El Paso Water spokesperson said the utility is not involved with Dell City’s municipal water system.

Since 2000, TECQ has fined Dell City nearly $41,000 for drinking water quality violations, according to a review of agency documents. That amount includes October’s $11,120 fine, of which the city has paid down about $2,500. The city plans to make monthly payments of $308.

The total fine amounts to about 5% of the city’s annual water and sewer fund revenues, according to the most recent budget available covering fiscal year 2020-21.

Dell City was previously fined for chlorine, copper and lead testing violations in 2016 and 2017. In 2020, it was fined for failing to inspect water storage tanks, which state regulators said could expose water users to significant amounts of contaminants.

Dell City has paid these fines in full, TCEQ spokesperson Stella Wieser said in an email. The city also received training from a third-party contractor in September, Wieser said, to develop emergency plans and to fix the violations.

Walden, a former TCEQ employee in El Paso, said Texas American Water Works Association volunteers have worked with about 40 small water systems — a sliver of the almost 1,800 systems the organization has identified as needing help with regulation issues. Small systems may require help with finances, operation of a water treatment plant, or installing better equipment.

Increased funding to rural water agencies and hiring technical staff to rotate among smaller systems quarterly are a few of the wants Walden has made to federal and state lawmakers.

“You’ve got to go out there and see the water systems, touch it, talk to people and get them to calm down and see that the problems are solvable and the bureaucracy and jargon aren’t insurmountable,” he said.

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...