HARLINGEN — Residents and commercial interests served by the Military Highway Water Supply Corp. along the border will see increases in their water and sewer rates on Jan. 1, 2021.

The nonprofit water supply district serves around 11,000 water customers and some 5,000 sewer customers in a vast area in southern Cameron and Hidalgo counties. Officials at the corporation say all those square miles is a definite factor in forcing them to hike rates for the first time since 2016.

“We’re finishing up a 30-mile, new 12-inch water line that’s pretty much almost put in place completely,” Ramon Rosales Jr., the water corporation’s general manager, said Thursday. “We also added two more elevated water towers that are 150,000 gallons apiece. That project there was about $8 million. That’s a 100-percent loan, there isn’t any grant attached to that.”

Base rates for residential customers will rise 18 percent for water and 16 percent for sewer. For non-residential and commercial customers, the hikes will be 41 percent for water and 33 percent for sewer.

That means the base minimum for water will increase from $27.50 to $32.44 per month for residential customers, and the usage rate per 1,000 gallons will go from $3 to $4.47 for users of between 2,001 and 25,000 gallons monthly.

Despite the price hikes, Rosales says the new rates are comparable with other rural water systems the size of his.

Unlike municipal water systems, which are relatively compact geographically, the MHWSC spans a coverage area from Alton Gloor Boulevard in Brownsville to the outskirts of Pharr. Its southern boundary is the border with Mexico, and its northern limit is roughly along the floodway.

A view of Military Highway Water Supply Corporation water tower Thursday afternoon. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

“A city covers a very small area and that’s it, your square mile, and it’s a whole different thing when you have maybe one customer every mile, or mile and a half,” Rosales said.

Many of the complaints Rosales receives have to do with how hard the water is, and Rosales says he has to remind customers that all of the water treated by his facility is groundwater, which is naturally high in minerals like calcium, magnesium and iron.

Rosales, who has served as general manager since 2013, also said the ongoing construction to widen U.S. 281 through his water district complicated his operations, and has led to complaints from customers he says he “completely understands.”

“People get angry because sometimes they will have color in the water,” he said. “Unfortunately for us, all the construction that was going on in Cameron County along 281, we had contractors breaking lines left and right.”

Despite the occasional discoloration due to sediment intrusion, Rosales said testing shows the water is safe.

Rosales said the rate increase isn’t just to pay for work already done, like installing new equipment in 30 lift stations and adding 60 new manholes, but also to fund new projects which are being planned.

“We’re a water supply corporation, we’re a nonprofit, plus our revenue comes directly from what we sell in water and collect in wastewater,” he said. “We do not have a tax base like a city, they collect taxes. The school district collects taxes. We don’t.”