Thousands of miles of water pipeline crisscross underneath the ground bringing us fresh, clean and, most importantly, safe drinking water.

A civil engineer is usually behind the plans to bring this precious resource to your home or business.

In the short time he has worked as a civil engineer, Ivan Garcia has been responsible for mapping out the locations for hundreds of miles of pipeline. It was another aspect of his career, which he hadn’t planned on that has made a big impact on him and the community.

Garcia was pretty sure that a career in engineering would provide him with an interesting job and a good living. What he didn’t expect was the deep sense of pride and connection to the community engineering would instill in him, starting with the building of a school in his own neighborhood.

“Someday, if I’m fortunate, my children could be attending the elementary school I helped design and build,” Garcia recently told a group of middle school students attending a summer pre-engineering program.

Garcia is a civil engineer and partner with Rio Delta Engineering. As would be expected, the bulk of his time is spent planning projects in his Edinburg office and overseeing them at the worksite. Yet, he feels that community outreach is an essential part of his job. It is just as important to go out into the public to talk to neighborhood groups about proposed projects and to visit with schoolchildren to talk about careers in engineering.

“It could be said that civil engineers build communities one project at a time. But first, it is essential to get the residents onboard for a project to become reality,” Garcia said. Public meetings give residents the opportunity to voice their concerns and to ask questions before any permits are approved and before any plans are finalized.

“There may be objections from residents living the closest to a project before, during and after a project is built. It’s best to address them upfront,” Garcia said. The dust and traffic of large equipment can be unsettling for some residents. Homeowners living closest to the project may be concerned about their property values dropping.

These are some of the issues that were brought up when a wastewater treatment plant was proposed to be built northwest of Donna by North Alamo Water Supply Corp. Called the Donna Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant, this is North Alamo Water Supply Corporation’s biggest wastewater treatment and collection project to date.

“The reality is that property values will increase,” Garcia said. It is generally thought that water service spurs growth, but once wastewater facilities come into an area, businesses, hospitals and schools will follow, he said.

Two open meetings were held for public comment. The first one was held in May 2014 before plans were finalized, and the second one was held in May 2016 right after construction had begun. Prior to both meetings, a block walk was conducted by employees from North Alamo Water Supply Corp., who handed out flyers, and invited homeowners within the project areas to attend.

Garcia lead both meetings. He encouraged residents to ask questions. Besides Delta Engineering, on hand to answer questions were representatives from North Alamo Water Supply Corp., Hidalgo County officials, Donna ISD staff, and the project financiers.

The meetings drew residents from other neighborhoods, who requested wastewater services be provided for their neighborhoods.

Garcia’s community outreach efforts helped lay the groundwork for a successful project so much so you could say he wrote the book. One of the state directors with Texas Water Development Board, impressed with the positive outreach strategies implemented, great public acceptance and local government support, as well as timely and effective construction of the project, requested that Garcia outline his approach to help other civil engineers with future projects in other areas of the state.

Garcia is a young engineer and has plenty of time to continue to use his engineering talents and dedication to help shape the Rio Grande Valley and encourage young people find their place in the community.

Outline for a successful wastewater project

Meanwhile, the Donna Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant, located at Minnesota and Goolie roads, north of Donna, is scheduled to be running by mid-October.

The Donna wastewater project is being funded by an $11 million grant, which will undoubtedly improve the lives of the families within the project areas, said Ivan Garcia, engineer overseeing the project. These neighborhoods, known locally as “colonias,” are residential areas near the Texas-Mexico border, located in semi-rural or unincorporated areas. “Colonias” are distinguished by a lack of basic infrastructure such as running water, sewage, paved roads, and electricity. In some cases the homes are substandard in size and construction.

The new wastewater collection system will connect to 400 homes in six colonias: Alberta Acres, El Charro #2, Isaac’s Subdivision, L.J. #1, Muniz Subdivision, and Tower Road Estates.

These “colonias” currently use on-site sanitation systems, mainly septic tanks with drain-field systems. However, due to a combination of population density, small lot sizes, high water tables and poor storm water drainage, the majority of these systems are not in compliance with county or state regulations and are very susceptible to fail during periods of heavy rain.

The total project costs is $11.78 million, funded by various sources. A $1.98 million dollar grant has been provided by the Environmental Protection Agency through the Border Environment Infrastructure Fund, a program administered by the North American Development Bank; and a $9.2 million dollar grant and $646,000 dollar loan have been provided by the Texas Water Development Board through the Economically Distressed Assistance Program.

But even before funding could be awarded, a study needed to be conducted in the “colonias”. A block walk was conducted by state health officials and North Alamo Water Supply Corp. staff to survey every homeowner in the six “colonias” with the intention to document the type of sanitation system used and any existing problems.

Residents reported their septic tanks flooded during wet weather, such as floods and hurricanes. The State Health Department declared the current sanitation situation a public hazard and nuisance.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows Ivan Garcia, an engineer and partner with Rio Delta Engineering, going over preliminary plans for a proposed neighborhood recently at his Edinburg office.