By Alejandra Martinez, The Texas Tribune
“Texas likely will spend billions fixing its water systems. Will it reach these forgotten colonias?” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
This article is part of a series published by The Texas Tribune examining the state’s deteriorating water infrastructure. For more in our Broken pipes series click here. And join us May 9 for a live discussion about our report and hear directly from Texans working to solve the problem.
Maria Martínez constantly calculates how much water is left in the 2,000-gallon tank that sits outside her home near El Paso.
When there’s less than 600 gallons, it’s time to place an order. A few loads of laundry and dirty dishes will use every last drop.
For the last 15 years — since Martínez moved to Colonia Hueco Tanks, a majority low-income Latino community outside the city limits — she has longed for running water.
“Aquí nunca habido agua,” Martínez said in Spanish. “Here there’s never been water.”
Colonia communities, like hers along the Texas-Mexico border, trace back to the 1950s and 1960s, when developers purchased less desirable tracts of land for cheap. These lands were susceptible to floods and not conducive for agriculture.
Developers sold them anyway.
To this day, thousands of these communities continue to live without basic human services such as water infrastructure, electricity, sewage and plumbing.
State lawmakers are on track to approve billions of dollars that will finance new water supply projects and upgrades to water infrastructure, specifically benefiting rural communities. However, water advocates and community organizers say the funding in Senate Bill 28, filed by Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, will not reach colonia communities — unless changes are made before the legislature adjourns at the end of month.
The legislation prioritizes two specific types of communities: rural subdivisions and incorporated towns with a population of less than 150,000. Colonias generally do not fall into these categories, said Alex Ortiz, a water resources specialist at Texas’ chapter of the Sierra Club.
“It makes me a little crazy,” Ortiz said. “Texas is diverse. And I think it’s really important that we take a broader look at which communities are actually capable of getting priority.”
The plight of Texas colonias
During the 1980s, thousands of Mexican and Central American laborers immigrated to the U.S. to work jobs in farms and manufacturing plants. They often settled in colonias because it was affordable land. Developers promised that these areas would prosper with time and that plumbing and electricity services were on the way. But, in the majority of cases, they never came.
Decades later, more than 1,300 of colonias lack basic services. A 2015 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas found 922 out of the 2,300 colonias in Texas had access to drinkable water, wastewater disposal, paved roads, adequate drainage and solid waste disposal.
Installing infrastructure in areas that are far from the main water and sewer lines and in these unincorporated towns is not easy — and very expensive. And unincorporated neighborhoods like the colonias have little political power. So residents have had little success lobbying for changes.
“Utilities are controlled by cities, not by rural county commissioners,” said Oscar Muñoz, director of the Texas A&M Colonias Program. The program provides colonias residents with health and education services, aiming to improve the communities’ quality of life.
“Why should cities worry about giving any of these colonias water when they can’t tax them?” Muñoz said.
In some cases, the only hope for a colonia is being absorbed into a nearby city, he said.
“As soon as you get absorbed into city limits, you become part of the taxing entity. Therefore, poco a poquito, little by little, the government will be extending the water lines and [colonia residents] will start getting water,” Muñoz said.
However, the colonias historically have had a limited tax base, making them less appealing to cities.
Martínez, the colonia homeowner, was born in Texas but grew up in Ciudad Juárez.
Her home in Colonia Hueco Tanks near El Paso was built over the years by her husband, dad and uncles crossing the Texas-Mexico border on weekends. She moved to the house permanently when violence surged in Ciudad Juárez in 2009.
While she and her family, including two children, were safe, it felt like a step backward. In Mexico, she said she had “todos los servicios,” all the basic services. In the United States she felt like she had nothing.
About 30 divided blocks of ranch land make up her neighborhood. Colorful homes dot each one. Inside those homes are upset residents. So many years have passed by, and water pipes have not reached her neighborhood.
Today, Martínez uses the thousands of gallons of water that are truck-delivered for washing dishes, cleaning, bathing and laundry. Neither she nor her neighbors trust the water that is delivered to drink or cook with. The water — stored in tanks for days or weeks before it is piped into homes — is prone to contamination from dust or rainwater, creating a serious risk of water-borne illnesses. Many of them say they’ve had stomach problems after drinking it. This lack of water infrastructure, Martínez said, is impacting the water they drink.
Most buy bottled water, another expense on top of the $180 Martínez said she spends every two weeks for the water storage.
“I wouldn’t dare drink it unless I boil it,” she said. “But even then, if I’m going to make a pitcher of Kool-Aid, I’m going to do it with bottled water.”
Ivonne Santiago, an engineering professor at UT-El Paso who has worked on water quality in El Paso colonias for more than a decade, said that to overcompensate for the degrading water quality in the tanks, colonia residents add chlorine to the water, hoping it will remove algae or other bacteria that might grow. But in doing so, some might over-chlorinate the water they use to brush their teeth and bathe in.
“There’s a lot of complaints about itching and … skin issues because they’re basically bathing in water that has more chlorine than a pool,” Santiago said.
Santiago helped gather information for a recent survey, commissioned by the nonprofit organization Texas Water Trade, that found Texans most concerned about their water quality are in rural, unincorporated colonias. And among the people surveyed, many did not trust the water they drink.
Martínez said that keeping track of how much water is used is complicated during times of extreme temperatures. Requests for more water increase in the summer or in times of drought as people use and drink more water to stay hydrated. When there’s extreme cold, water tanks and pumps freeze or crack.
Martínez said she doesn’t think she will see water infrastructure reach Hueco Tanks in her lifetime. She said her community is forgotten and isolated, and there’s limited development planning that could forecast services getting to her quicker.
“I don’t think you’ll see that soon. From what we can see, this is going to take a long time because the drainage is still very far away,” she said.
Incentivizing cooperation for the colonias
Despite not being specifically named in this year’s hallmark legislation, SB 28, one water expert has reason to believe colonias will see benefits after that and other bills win approval.
Carlos Rubinstein, a former chair of the Texas Water Development Board, said the added state funding will make it easier for regions to support one another.
“Colonias ultimately are best served when they can be brought into a larger existing system. Larger existing systems shy away from taking in colonias because of the costs,” he said. “But Senate Bill 28 provides funding for that.”
An estimated 2,300 colonias along the borderlands in El Paso, Hidalgo, Maverick, Starr, Webb and Cameron counties have existed outside city limits and are largely unregulated by any level of government. At least a half million people — mostly U.S. residents — call these economically distressed communities home.
Rubinstein said that label — economically distressed — could make a difference for many colonia residents if legislators manage to secure more funding this session.
House Joint Resolution 169, authored by Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, and House Bill 3523, by Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, could allocate increased and sustained funding to the Economically Distressed Areas Program, or EDAP, a decades-old state-run program that has been vital in providing water and wastewater services to colonia residents.
“One of the problems with EDAP is having to come back to the Legislature — not every session, but frequently — to get money. This bill secures perpetual funding,” Rubinstein said.
González is also sponsoring another bill, House Bill 3522, which would allow the Texas Water Development Board to increase the amount of financial assistance the agency can provide to local governments who are applying for colonia water projects.
“The less costly the state makes it for local communities to help, the better for everyone,” González said in a statement. “When a city runs a water line to a colonia, all the land adjacent to that line can be developed into housing or commercial use, creating jobs and economic develop[ment] opportunities for residents.”
The EDAP has distributed approximately $1.1 billion in grants and loans for communities, including colonias, over the past three decades. The colonias that still don’t have running water are the “most difficult and severe” because they are the furthest away from cities and the smallest. Getting water to those homes is much too expensive for a local government to shoulder. Adding more state money helps secure water projects for the colonias that still dream of turning on their tap every day and seeing clean water flowing out.
It’s unclear whether González’s request to help all economically disadvantaged communities will become reality. The Texas House in late April approved both bills. However, the state Senate must also give its OK.
Because of this, the Sierra Club’s Ortiz is urging lawmakers to add colonias to the major water bill that is expected to pass.
“We don’t want to leave already vulnerable communities outside of our prioritization schemes. That could be really damaging to some of these communities,” Ortiz said.
Sometimes, local action helps
There is at least one recent example of a city helping a nearby colonia with grant funding.
Nearly 800 miles from Martínez’s home near El Paso, Francisca Quintanilla has been part of the fight to get water infrastructure to the colonias near Palmview in the Rio Grande Valley for decades.
Quintanilla is a member of La Unión del Pueblo Entero, or LUPE, a group founded by Mexican labor rights activists César Chávez and Dolores Huerta that organizes community movements to create social change.
Along with the need for clear water and wastewater infrastructure, there’s also the problem of drainage and flooding in colonia communities. Households in Quintanilla’s Colonia Ramirez Number 4 depend on private septic systems to get their water and are not connected to the city’s sewage system.
Quintanilla, who moved to Colonia Ramirez Number 4 with her kids in 1986 after a divorce, remembers having to depend on one household with a water tank to get the water she needed to bathe her kids and wash the dishes. And although this is not the reality anymore, the colonia has another water problem.
Colonia Ramirez Number 4 is prone to flooding because there’s no stormwater drainage in the streets. When heavy rain pours, colonia residents brace for flooding. Quintanilla remembers her soaked, cold feet.
“Se nos mojaba la ropa y pies,” she said in Spanish. “Our clothes and feet would get wet.”
When it rained, the streets flooded. Quintanilla stacked up cement blocks in a path to take her children to the bus stop blocks away for school.
Quintanilla lived with these complications for two decades, when she decided to leave the colonia in 2016. She was tired and filled with despair. But years after her departure, when her two kids grew up, she felt a guilt that consumed her. Something tugged at her heart.
“I realized it is not worth being comfortable when others are suffering,” she said.
Quintanilla joined LUPE, came back to Colonia Ramirez Number 4 as an organizer and since then has pushed for better lighting, individual septic tanks for households and drainage systems.
“Nunca nos desesperamos. Seguimos insistiendo,” she said in Spanish. “We never gave up and kept insisting.”
Crucial initiatives and programs have emerged to address the challenges faced by colonia communities, Quintanilla said, given that water infrastructure problems are just one of many. In her role with LUPE, she said she’s talked to staff at the county and other officials about her environmental concerns: groundwater pollution during floods, water contamination from septic tanks and various health conditions.
“These colonias have been suffering for decades. They are practically forgotten. My job is to hold meetings, look for leaders to help us and to show them how they can help,” she said.
For two years, Quintanilla supplied information to residents, organized community meetings and went door to door collecting signatures from colonia residents who, she said, had raised their hands and given up.
Her efforts partly led to the city of Palmview recently receiving a more than $600,000 grant from the Texas General Land Office to alleviate drainage issues in Colonia Ramirez Number 4, about 18 acres of property. The drainage improvements will include adding storm inlets, an underground drain pipe system that will convey water to a new detention pond and a pump station.
Quintanilla said this victory has encouraged colonia residents to hold on to hope that lawmakers gathering in Austin will address their issues.
Advocates say there are more bills that could help colonias but that they face an uphill battle in the Legislature. Ortiz points to Senate Bill 1823 by Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, which would instruct the Texas Water Development Board to consider funding for drainage in economically distressed areas. Johnson said EDAP’s current funding ability is “great, but it’s insufficient” and said this new funding would be in addition to water and wastewater treatment funds the agency already provides.
“It’s probably not likely to go anywhere,” Ortiz said. “But getting it on everyone’s mind over the interim is important. … We shouldn’t be neglecting one part of the state or some parts of the state at the benefit of the others.”
Despite facing significant challenges, Quintanilla said disadvantaged communities have proven time and again that change comes from within as they band together and rely on help from nonprofits or organizations, like hers, to overcome obstacles, advocate for themselves and empower others.
“We did it, knocking door to door,” she said. “Even when people didn’t believe it was possible, we gave them something to hope for.”
Disclosure: Texas General Land Office has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
We can’t wait to welcome you Sept. 21-23 to the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival, our multiday celebration of big, bold ideas about politics, public policy and the day’s news — all taking place just steps away from the Texas Capitol. When tickets go on sale in May, Tribune members will save big. Donate to join or renew today.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/05/05/texas-water-infrastructure-colonias/.
The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.