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TCEQ Water Rescue

Jan. 8, 2021 – As Appointed ‘Receiver,’ Engineer Don Rauschuber Stepped in to Help Save Troubled Water System

By Gary Rasp, TCEQ External Relations

Don Rauschuber
Don Rauschuber

When Don Rauschuber took over the foundering Lake Valley Estates Water System in La Vernia, Texas, two years ago, he knew what he was getting into.

A civil engineer and water/wastewater systems consultant for nearly 50 years, Rauschuber is a veteran of countless water wars who had seen it all—or so he thought.

But this was a challenge that even he couldn’t have fathomed.

At the behest of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Rauschuber literally came to the rescue after the previous water system managers bailed, leaving locals in the lurch.

The Texas Water Code authorizes TCEQ to seek a temporary manager or a “receiver” of water systems if the system has been abandoned or fallen into disarray, as was clearly the case in Lake Valley. Designated receivers are empowered to resolve violations and bring water systems into compliance with TCEQ standards, and to make improvements that ensure adequate service to customers.

When efforts to resolve numerous violations have been exhausted and a crisis persists, TCEQ’s Water Supply Division staff work fast to identify what skills and experience a receiver may need. Staff then identify prospective receivers willing to serve in that role and pass along their recommendations to the agency’s Litigation Division for approval. The final decision then rests with the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

TCEQ does not take the decision to call in a receiver lightly. In this case, agency personnel had tirelessly worked to resolve the many violations and other enforcement actions undertaken to bring Lake Valley’s water system into compliance.

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Two 170,000-gallon ground storage tanks in the Lake Valley water system.
Two 170,000-gallon ground storage tanks in the Lake Valley water system.

‘A last resort’

“We tried everything we could,” said Cari-Michel La Caille, director of TCEQ’s Water Supply Division. “Authorizing a receiver is a last resort.”

For Lake Valley, Don Rauschuber stood out as someone who had the combination of engineering and water system management experience needed, as well as a willingness to step in and do what was needed to get the job done.

Rauschuber, who grew up in Iowa Park (near Wichita Falls), attended Texas Tech University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Science and a master’s degree in Civil Engineering. He was no stranger to troubled water systems when TCEQ contacted him in the fall of 2018 about Lake Valley Estates.

Once he was appointed as receiver by the district court, TCEQ worked with Rauschuber to troubleshoot issues, discuss engineering plans, and address other concerns.

Agency staff also assisted Rauschuber in identifying potential sources of funding for needed improvements in the Lake Valley system. Initial estimates by Rauschuber indicated it would take more than $550,000 to get the system financially solvent, some of which would come out of his own pocket.

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Left holding the bag

The water system’s previous operator, Texas Rain Holdings, and system owner Las Palomas Water Services Co., were behind on property taxes since 2010 and left behind a stack of past-due bills for state health department lab tests. They also had amassed a laundry list of penalties and infractions issued by TCEQ.

Shortly after agreeing to take on the job, Rauschuber conducted an on-site inspection. He realized residents had had about all they could take.

“It was in shambles,” he recalled. “The previous owner-operators had run it into the ground.”

Outages and water leaks were commonplace. Even worse, the 200 or so residents of the subdivision, about six miles north of Sutherland Springs in eastern Wilson County, had been subject to frequent boil water notices off and on for the last five years.

“Mostly on,” Rauschuber said with a chuckle.

Residents had grown accustomed to a daily routine of boiling water prior to cooking, washing dishes, and—for those adventurous souls—quenching their thirst on a hot summer day.

In addition, customer accounts were in total disarray. Texas Rain Holdings had failed to provide Rauschuber a list of needed repairs, or even a list of unpaid vendors. 

One of the first things Rauschuber did was hire New Braunfels-based David Wallace of DLR Water Co.

“That’s the key—getting a good operating company,” he said.

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Facility entrance and ground storage tanks.
Facility entrance and ground storage tanks.

Stabilizing the system

Working with state and local officials, Rauschuber’s team begin repairing countless leaks, replacing broken and worn out equipment, and otherwise stabilizing the system, which took nearly a year.

“The TCEQ personnel were all very helpful in helping us get through this quagmire,” Rauschuber noted, as were staffers at the Public Utility Commission of Texas, which assisted in the filing of emergency and temporary water rates.

Staff in the Texas Attorney General’s Office also provided invaluable assistance as he maneuvered his way through protracted legal proceedings in Travis County’s 98th District Court.

“I could not have undertaken the receivership role without the legal expertise and counsel provided by the AG’s office,” Rauschuber said.

His greatest challenge?

“The unknown,” he said with a hearty laugh. “The system was in very poor condition. It took a lot to get it back on its feet.” 

Getting the water system operational—including refurbishing a faulty well and repairing or replacing pumps and broken system piping—took the better part of a year. It was several months more before Rauschuber was able to resolve the many violations the previous owners had racked up over the years.  

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A new future for Lake Valley

Next up is to make a series of recommendations in district court, in concurrence with the Attorney General’s Office, on further upgrades to the system’s water treatment plant and related compliance issues. Rauschuber hopes to take that step early in 2021.

In the meantime, he’s working the phones for additional sources of funding to finance the next round of improvements.

“I’m hopeful we’ll get that done in a few months,” he said, adding that the remaining improvements will allow Lake Valley to come into full compliance with public water system requirements and add more customers to the system.

While significant progress has been made, the work is far from over, and problems still arise.

“I had some sleepless nights when we had a well go out in October,” Rauschuber recalled. “But we had it back operational within about 48 hours.”

All part of the job for the water whisperer.

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All images TCEQ.