Hays County Judge Bert Cobb during a June 21 commissioners court meeting. Photo by Sean Batura.
The City of San Marcos may have the cleanest, yet worst-tasting water among nearby public water suppliers, according to a recent survey by the Hays County Development Services Department.
Hays County Development Services Director Clint Garza said 18-20 volunteers from his office and the Hays County Transportation Department conducted water taste-testing in 11 county offices served by seven public water supplies. Garza said all taste-tested water was bottled at the same temperature and unlabeled so tasters were unaware of the source.
“The City of San Marcos performed the worst on taste,” Garza said to commissioners.
Garza said water from the City of San Marcos had more chlorine than the other public water supplies surveyed, though he said the chemical was within the legal limit.
“It’s way below the limits, actually — it’s just higher,” Garza said. “We capped it (in bottles) as soon as we collected it, so the chlorine didn’t have a chance to dissipate.”
The issue of water quality and taste in county offices arose on June 21, when county commissioners voted narrowly against extending their contract with Hill Country Springs for bottled water services after discussing the matter for about 20 minutes. With the approach of a budget year anticipated to be tight, commissioners have been making cuts, sometimes in ways that are not popular.
“I put this on the agenda because of the multiple phone calls we’ve received when the rumor went out that mean old Judge Cobb was going to take away the bottled water in Hays County (offices),” said Hays County Judge Bert Cobb (R-San Marcos). “It really was an IQ test. Because I’ve explored this and I’ve asked our environmental department to study it, because I’ve heard every situation from, ‘The water tastes bad,’ to ‘The water is dangerous,’ to ‘The (bottled) water is safer,’ to ‘My doctor told me to drink eight glasses of water a day,’ to ‘It’s too hot and it’s too far to the water (fountain).’ It’s amazing. I mean, who ever heard?”
Cobb said bottled water is “chewing gum” compared to other items he said may have to be cut from the county’s budget.
The County spent $18,271.65 last fiscal year and $10,958.95 this year for Hill Country Springs water, according to Hays County Accountant Vickie Wilhelm. Hays County District Attorney Civil Division Chief Mark Kennedy told commissioners the proposed contract with Hill Country Springs would have imposed no legal obligation to buy a certain amount of water, which he said is $5 per jug.
Among those who disapproved of nixing bottled water were Precinct 1 Constable David Peterson (D-San Marcos) and employees in the offices of Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-Wimberley) and Hays County Precinct 4 Commissioner Ray Whisenant (R-Dripping Springs), among others.
“I heard from my folks yesterday morning, and I told them I thought they were taking this a little too seriously, and that we need to make cuts, and luxury items are a good place to start,” Conley said at the June 21 meeting.
Whisenant said the desire of his employees for bottled water is probably a “psychological issue,” though he said there would be sufficient savings in his budget to make the cost endurable should the county continue the bottled water contract with Hill Country Springs. Whisenant said it would be about $600 per year to supply bottled water to his office.
Peterson told commissioners his deputies, who he said wear bullet proof vests, are constantly in and out of vehicles throughout the day serving civil process paperwork. Peterson later said his deputies often do this for up to 14 hours each.
“And with the weather being the way it is, I figure my office deserves to have some bottled water for them to come in and drink and for them to fill their thermoses up and take them,” Peterson said days later.
During the meeting, Cobb asked how far the nearest drinking fountain is to the Precinct 1 Constable’s Office, and Peterson said “probably about 15 feet.” After a brief pause, Peterson said it is “not a bad idea” for his current office to rely on the drinking fountain.
“On the other hand, if we don’t have a water fountain when we go to this new building, that’s still going to be a problem,” Peterson continued.
In reply, Cobb said the county spent $40,000 for drinking fountains in the government center, which is under construction near Wonder World Dive and Stagecoach Trail in San Marcos.
Peterson said he had not reviewed the government center diagram to determine the location of water fountains in relation to his future office.
“If we are having all of this wrangling over a simple issue of bottled water, it’s going to be a long budget process,” Cobb said.
Hays County Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos) said her office made “a conscious decision” not to ask for bottled water.
“Here’s my proposal: sign the contract…and then the departments pay for it out of their budgets,” Cobb said to his colleagues during the meeting and before the vote.
Whisenant made a motion to that effect, and it failed by a 3-2 vote. Whisenant and Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Mark Jones (R-Kyle) cast the losing votes.
Garza said taste-tested water was collected from County Line Water Supply Corporation, Wimberley Water Supply Corporation, Dripping Springs Water Supply Corporation, City of Buda, City of Kyle, City of San Marcos, and Maxwell Water Supply Corporation. Of the sources, Garza said “there’s not a whole lot of variation in (water) quality,” because the suppliers have to meet legal requirements related to contaminants.
Garza said his office also looked for bacteria species fecal Coliform bacteria and E. coli in well water supplying two county offices in Commissioner Precincts 2 and 3. Garza said the wells tested clean.
Garza said the best-tasting public water supply, according to his tasters, was from Maxwell Water Supply Corporation (MWSC), which supplies his office at 2171 Yarrington Road, in San Marcos. Water through MWSC exceeded the legal limit for contaminants more often than the other suppliers surveyed, said Garza. Exceeding the legal limit for one test does not necessarily indicate a water system is out of compliance with state law.
Much of the information used in county’s survey was obtained from a database maintained by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. The reporting period included in the EWG database ranges from the beginning of 2004 to the end of 2007, and the beginning of 2004 to the end of 2008. MWSC water did not exceed contaminant limits in 2007, 2006, and most of 2005, according to the EWG database.
Garza told commissioners the second-best-tasting water source was from the Wimberley Water Supply Corporation, which supplies the Commissioner Precinct 3 office.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) found the entities surveyed by the county committed water quality-related violations of a statute, order, rule, permit, registration or other authorization, on the following occasions:
• City of San Marcos: One violation in 2003.
• MWSC: Two violations in 2005.
• City of Kyle: No violations listed.
• City of Buda: Two violations in 2003, three violations in 2004, and four violations in 2010.
• Wimberley Water Supply Corporation: One violation in 2005, seven violations in 2010.
• Dripping Springs Water Supply Corporation: Two violations in 2006, two violations in 2007, and two violations in 2010.
• County Line Water Supply Corporation: One violation in 2010.
The following information is from the summary section of Garza’s survey with additional information from EWG’s database:
City of San Marcos
• E. coli bacteria shut down well in May 2010 (present in raw water, not treated water).
• No U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) violations since 2004.
• 14 contaminants found from the beginning of 2004 to the end of 2008. Seven of the contaminants exceeded federal and state agency health guidelines multiple times during the same period. No contaminants exceeded legal limits during the same period.
Maxwell Water Supply Corporation
• Two maximum contaminant level (MCL) and treatment violations since 2004.
• 14 contaminants were found from the beginning of 2004 to the end of 2008. Eight of the contaminants exceeded health guidelines multiple times during the same period. Two contaminants exceeded legal guidelines in 2005. One contaminant exceeded legal guidelines twice in 2004. Another contaminant exceded legal guidelines in 2004 and 2005.
City of Kyle
• High fluoride level warning for water supply in July 2010.
• No EPA violations since 2004.
• 16 contaminants were found from the beginning of 2004 to the end of 2008. Eight of the contaminants exceeded health guidelines multiple times during the same period. One of the contaminants, alpha particle radiation, exceeded health guidelines once in 2005. No contaminants exceeded legal limits during the same period.
City of Buda
• Coliform bacteria exceeded safety standard in June 2010, which is the most recent EPA violation.
• One MCL and treatment violation, one reporting violation, and one monitoring violation since 2004.
• 12 contaminants found from the beginning of 2004 to the end of 2008. Two of the contaminants exceeded health guidelines in 2004 and 2007. Alpha particle radiation exceeded health guidelines in 2005. Three additional contaminants exceeded health guidelines in 2007. No contaminants exceeded legal limits during the same period.
Wimberley Water Supply Corporation
• One EPA monitoring violation since 2004.
• Five contaminants found between the beginning of 2004 and the end of 2007. Two of the contaminants exceeded health guidelines in 2005. No contaminants exceeded legal limits.
• Alpha particle radiation, one of the aforementioned contaminants, exceeded health guidelines in 2005. Coliform bacteria exceeded safety standard in October 2010, which is the most recent EPA violation.
Dripping Springs Water Supply Corporation
• Two EPA reporting violations and two monitoring violations since 2004.
• 19 contaminants found from the beginning of 2004 to the end of 2007. Nine of the contaminants exceeded federal and state agency health guidelines multiple times during the same period. Two contaminants exceeded legal limits in 2004. One contaminant exceeded the legal limit in 2005.
County Line Water Supply Corporation
• 15 contaminants were found from the beginning of 2004 to the end of 2008. Eight of the contaminants exceeded health guidelines multiple times during the same period. Two of the contaminants exceeded health guidelines in 2005. Two contaminants — radium and alpha particle radiation, exceeded health guidelines in 2005. Two contaminants exceeded legal limits in 2004.
• Routine major monitoring violation for Coliform bacteria in March 2010.