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“August came and went…”
If bad weather hits the region again this winter, vital services should be prepared to override system failures, according to a directive by the Cotulla City Council.
A hard freeze in February 2021 caused disruption to vital city utility systems when electricity supplies failed and residents across South Texas were left without water because city wells could not function.
The breakdown prompted the city of Cotulla to find alternate ways to keep water wells operational in the event of a future emergency, and installation of at least two fuel-powered generators has become a focus of attention at City Hall over the past year and a half.
Anticipating another freeze in the winter of 2021-22, city councilors ordered that generators be rented, and while there was no complete failure of utility services earlier this year, the temporary installations were primed and ready for the eventuality throughout January and February, according to utilities supervisor David Wright.
Today, Cotulla City Hall is expecting to hear from the Texas Department of Emergency Management on the second half of a million-dollar grant application that would cover a large portion of the alternate-power installation.
The CDM Smith company has been contracted by the city to design generator back-up systems for Cotulla’s water wells and is expecting to oversee construction.
According to Cotulla City Administrator Larry Dovalina, funds from the state are made possible through the federal CARES Act, budgeted to assist in coronavirus pandemic relief.
The funding application deadline passed June 30, according to the city administrator, and recipients should “expect to hear soon” whether they will receive grants.
“We are entitled to one million dollars, and we have only received half so far,” Dovalina told city councilors at their meeting Thursday, September 8. “We have a design underway right now for the emergency generators, but no information yet on the remainder of the grant.”
Although the CARES Act funds are dispatched for pandemic relief, the federal government has allowed recipients to use the money either as coverage for revenues lost due to the lockdown in 2021 and related economic after-effects, or for capital improvements.
Both criteria are met in Cotulla’s application for and use of the funds, Dovalina said last week.
City Hall has estimated that the construction of alternate-power sources at two of the city’s newest wells may reach $1.2 million, although the city administrator and the utilities supervisor believe they can drive the cost down.
“When we got the first half of the grant, we were told that we would be entitled to another half a million dollars and that it would be disbursed this August,” Dovalina said in an interview last Thursday. “Well, August came and went, and nothing.”
The city administrator said the generators will be diesel powered, since other fuel sources may be hard to obtain in the event of an emergency or utilities failure. Gas station pumps, he said, will not work when the power grid is turned off.
The city expects to store hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel for use in such an emergency, Dovalina said, adding that fuel tanks are already in place.
Should funding from the Texas Department of Emergency Management go dry, Dovalina said the city has a number of grant applications underway to other agencies, among them the Texas Water Development Board.
“We may end up combining resources,” he said.
Wright said last week that he shares the community’s disappointment in the apparent slow-down in CARES Act funding after the city of Cotulla was told it would receive the second half of the grant.
“Powering two wells should meet the city’s demand for water in winter,” Wright said. “Our crews were out there during that freeze, working throughout, to get utilities going and provide some relief to families who were totally stranded.”
Wright said he remains shocked at the conditions under which Cotulla residents suffered without essential utilities during the 2021 freeze.
“Coming from Baltimore, Maryland, I have seen some hard winters, and I’ve seen what a freeze can do,” the utilities supervisor said. “What I saw here in Cotulla was terrible. I don’t ever want to experience something like that again.”