City gives Village Farms new water contract
By ALBERTO TOMAS HALPERN
MARFA – It was a somber scene at last Thursday’s city council meeting. A bouquet of bright flowers sat atop the table next to an empty seat that had once been occupied by council member Corina Brijalba.
Brijalba passed away last week in an El Paso hospital after a long battle with cancer. Her nameplate sat next to the flowers.
“It was a real pleasure to serve with Corina,” City Attorney Teresa Todd said as the meeting was called to session. “It won’t be the same without her.”
“I echo those words,” Mayor Dan Dunlap said, who asked for a moment of silence in Brijalba’s remembrance.
After the brief memorial, council members put their game faces on and adopted a proposed water contract with Village Farms, the tomato produce corporation.
“This is the modified water contract originally entered into in 1997,” Todd said as she explained the negotiated changes. The long-term contract with Village Farms expired on September 1.
“As of September 1, Village Farms will become a regular city customer and pay our city rates just like anyone else. This is the major change you will see,” Todd continued.
For years, Village Farms had used the city’s water at a subsidized rate. Dunlap said after the meeting that in his recollection, Village Farms had initially paid $1 per 1,000 gallons of water no matter how much they used. That figure went up to $4 per 1,000 gallons in 2007 when he took office.
“Under the terms of the original contract, the city was never allowed to make a profit. I don’t know why (the city) ever accepted it,” said Dunlap.
Under the new contract, Village Farms will now pay the same rate that out-of-city customers pay for water usage: $1.50 per 1,000 gallons up for the first 2,000 gallons used. Once usage passes the 2,000 gallon mark, the rate for usage increases to $4.40 per 1,000 gallons for up to 5,000 gallons, then $5.10 per 1,000 gallons up to 12,000 gallons and so on.
The city provides water to Village Farms for two purposes, potable water for their employees and regular plumbing and secondly as a supplemental source for irrigation purposes.
“They have a well system that they use to provide irrigation. If that goes down we are their source of water,” Todd explained. “What we’re telling them is under all circumstances we’ll have water for their employees use. We’re not making promises that we’ll give irrigation water in times of drought. Indeed, water conservation clause is seen in the contract that stipulates, “In times of water conservation, Marfa makes no guarantee that potable water will be available for (Village Farms’) vegetable growing operations.”
Michael Bledsoe, PhD and Vice President of Scientific and Regulatory Affairs with Village Farms said this week that the new contract was the result of a positive and concerted negotiating effort between the city of Marfa and Village Farms.
“I consider it very fair. I think (the city) is treating us very fairly. We’re very pleased,” said Bledsoe, adding that the last thing Village Farms wants to do is put the city in a position to not get their “fair share.”
Village Farms’ operations recently took a big hit, literally, when their greenhouses outside of Marfa were damaged by hail, halting production.
Bledsoe said that of their 82 acres near Marfa, they hope to have 40 acres planted in the next few weeks and get back up and running again.
City officials kept the conversation of water flowing at their meeting as they discussed proposed language to remove Presidio County from a section of the Texas Water Code known as the Midland Exemption. The exemption prohibits the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District board from regulating the production and sale of water by municipalities in the county. In order to effect the change, the cities of Marfa and Presidio, along with the county and water board, have to pass the same resolutions and bring them forth to our state elected officials in Austin.
In an effort to reach a consensus, county officials are willing to allow the municipalities’ historic water production to be exempt from regulation. Therein was a problem with Marfa city officials. Officials couldn’t quite agree on what constituted historic water production.
“We peaked in 1968,” City Administrator Jim Mustard said of the city’s water usage. “It’s been going down since 1968.”
“Historic production level means we can go back to that 1968 max,” Dunlap asked.
“I think you could make that argument,” Mustard said, adding that perhaps using water figures in the recent past made more sense.
“If it’s not defined then shouldn’t it be,” Councilman David Fannin added to the mix.
Dunlap said he’d like to know what the maximum production level would be without regulation.
“I would interpret historic as far back,” Fannin said before making a motion to seek guidance and define what constituted historic water usage. Councilman Manny Baeza seconded the motion which passed unanimously.
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