Fluoride Action Network

Colonias on the border struggle with decades-old water issues

Source: The Texas Tribune | August 22nd, 2017 | By Maria Esquinca and Andrea Jaramillo
Location: United States, Texas

The following is an excerpt from a much longer article:

All along the U.S.-Mexico border, about 840,000 mostly low-income, immigrant Latinos have settled in colonias – cheap plots of land outside city limits without basic infrastructure such as water and sewage systems, electricity and paved roads.

Twenty-three years ago, Olivia Figueroa left her neighborhood in Chihuahua, Mexico, where she didn’t have basic services, and immigrated to the U.S. She paid $40 to cross the Rio Grande, only to arrive to another community that also lacked services — often referred to as a colonia — in San Elizario, Texas. As in Mexico, the colonia had no electricity, no paved roads, no sewage and no drinking water.

“And that’s when I said, ‘Where’s the American dream?’ ” Figueroa said in Spanish. “I didn’t think that here, in the United States, in the most powerful country in the world, there would be lack of services.”

All along the U.S.-Mexico border, about 840,000 mostly low-income, immigrant Latinos have settled in colonias – cheap plots of land outside city limits without basic infrastructure such as water and sewage systems, electricity and paved roads.

A News21 analysis of census data indicates that across the United States, the average income in predominantly Latino unincorporated areas is 40 percent lower than the average income in predominantly white unincorporated areas, making it harder for these communities to deal with water quality issues. Colonias exemplify some of these problems.

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As of 2015, an estimated 30 percent of colonia residents didn’t have access to safe, clean drinking water, according to the Rural Community Assistance Partnership, a national nonprofit group.

News21 visited colonias along the border – in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas – and examined how residents deal with water contamination and why it’s so difficult to improve their condition.

Colonias often face complicated government bureaucracy and limited budgets that make it hard to secure funds to fix problems. Residents are often poor, with little education, and some are undocumented. And since many residents say they are not civically engaged, they feel invisible to their elected officials.

Colonia residents also have to face the public perception that they chose to settle in their communities knowing they lacked services.

“There are attitudes out there that these people moved into these subdivisions on their own, consciously, and they should not be expecting the state to bail them out,” said Texas state Sen. José Rodríguez, a Democrat from El Paso. “The fact that (colonias) exist in other parts of the border along the U.S. reflects some similar attitudes.”

Historical settlement

The word colonia means “neighborhood” in Spanish. The federal and state governments use the term to describe settlements along the border that lack infrastructure. Colonias can be traced to the 1950s, but some argue they’ve been there longer.

Thousands of mostly immigrants – both legal and undocumented –who couldn’t afford to live in the city settled in colonias. County and state regulations did not require developers to provide basic services if the land didn’t exceed a certain number of lots.

“If you look at the history of these communities, they were unscrupulous land sales,” said Gina Nuñez, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Land developers would tell colonia residents: “ ‘Don’t worry. Those services are coming. The county is growing, and they’re going to provide those services,’ ” El Paso County Commissioner Vince Perez said. “We still haven’t been able to deliver (water and wastewater) service to residents who have been waiting three decades.”

About 90 percent of the colonias –  roughly 2,000 of them – are in Texas, according to data from Texas and the Rural Community Assistance Partnership. It was the first border state to legally recognize colonias and allocate funds for them.

In the early 1990s, after a population boom, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Agriculture officially recognized colonias as neighborhoods within 150 miles of the border that lack some basic utilities. The National Affordable Housing Act of 1990 required that all the border states set aside a percentage of Community Development Block Grants for colonias.

“We created ways for these communities to better compete for resources,” said Ed Cabrera, a HUD spokesman. “Despite these efforts, there’s obviously still a lot of need in these areas.”

Some colonias have their own water systems or receive water from nearby cities if they’re close enough. Their treatment facilities, pipes, wells and septic tanks are too often old, or they can’t afford the technology to properly clean the water.

Complicated bureaucracy

Araceli Silva moved to her colonia near Yuma, Arizona, 27 years ago because of the cheap price. She settled there after immigrating from Michoacan, Mexico when she was 17 to do farm work in the fields.

The 53-year-old mother of nine has struggled with her wells, which have run dry more than once. She doesn’t have the money to hire a professional because she stopped working after suffering severe back pain – a result of harvesting broccoli for so long.

Silva and her neighbors rely on individual wells because they can’t hook up to the city system.

Yuma County officials said they’re concerned when residents build wells without required permits. They know there’s often not enough separation between the wells and septic tanks, which can increase risk of contamination. And they fear some of the wells do not go deep enough. However, they said the residents must meet certain conditions before they can apply for funds to connect to city water. The first problem: The county won’t allow more than one house on each parcel. But since the residents already have multiple homes on each parcel, they won’t budge.

Residents who want access to water also would have to sign off on a petition and agree to pay for a preliminary assessment without first knowing the cost. The county would need to hire engineers to figure out if the project is viable and determine the expense. Residents would have to pay for these reports even if the project doesn’t happen.

“Some of them would call them a ‘blank check’ because they’re signing a petition without knowing how much it’s gonna cost them at the end,” said Nancy Ngai, Yuma County community planning coordinator. She said that, depending on the size of the project, those reports can cost  nearly $100,000. Without the residents signing that petition, the county can’t help, she said.

After years of going back and forth with residents, the county gave up. “For the past 10 years, I really have not worked with them at all simply because there were too many roadblocks that I was just not able to find an answer to,” Ngai said.

For Silva, that means remaining in the shadows. “No one comes to this place to help,” Silva said in Spanish.

Lack of funding

The residents of Tornillo, a small unincorporated community in El Paso County in Texas, get their water from their own water treatment plant. But their system has tested positive for high arsenic levels for a decade, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Local officials tried to address the arsenic, which is naturally occurring in the region, but they couldn’t secure enough money to pay the $3.25 million needed for a new water treatment plant.

The El Paso County Tornillo Water Improvement District relies on property taxes and the revenue from water bills, which isn’t enough to pay for the upkeep of the new plant. The lack of funds is a common problem for these small water districts when they need to make major improvements. It means they must obtain a loan or seek help from the county, state or federal government.

Franciela Vega, business affairs manager for the Tornillo water district, said securing a loan wasn’t a viable option.“We knew that if we obtained a full loan, it wouldn’t be affordable for the customers,” Vega said.

Vega said they never even thought of asking the county for money since it struggles financially as well. And when the district tried the state, it couldn’t secure a grant through the Texas Water Development Board’s Economically Distressed Areas Program, which provides water and wastewater funding for poor communities. That funding is quickly evaporating: Now there’s only $50 million left from its latest $250 million bond authorization in 2007.

“The bottom line is that a lot of these legislators feel they’ve spent a lot of money (on colonias),” said Rodriguez, the Texas state senator. “It’s really unconscionable that people didn’t give priority to these programs, for people that are essentially living in Third World conditions.”

Jessica Zuba, an administrator with the water development board, said these funds have serviced 300,000 colonia residents in Texas since the program’s inception in 1989.

The Tornillo district eventually got a federal grant through the Environmental Protection Agency’s border program, and it installed a plant in March.

But water-quality experts said federal funds face an uncertain future as well. President Donald Trump’s budget proposal eliminates all federal money allocated for water and wastewater projects through HUD’s block grant program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s water and wastewater program, and the EPA’s border program.

Even when water districts in colonias do find the money for major projects, they can struggle with maintaining their systems. Small water systems often have to charge their customers more because they can’t spread out the costs among a larger population base.

For example, the Tornillo district installed the treatment plant in March; however, the water district still had an arsenic violation in July, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The cost of any repairs will mean higher rates for residents.

Residents rely on bottled water

As colonias residents struggle with the long wait for clean water, they often turn to bottled water. Latinos rely more on bottled water than other minorities and whites, according to the 2015 American Housing Survey, and they spend nearly $2.17 more on commercial bottled water a month than non-Latinos, according to a study conducted by Vanderbilt University economist William Viscusi.

All along the border, dozens of small water bottles and gallon jugs pile up in homes because residents don’t think it’s safe to drink from the tap.

Residents from Glen Acres, New Mexico, rely on bottled water because they don’t trust the quality and don’t like the taste of the tap water from their own water system. It has had more water quality violations than any other system in the state, according to a News21 analysis of EPA data.

The system, which delivers water to 72 homes, has had uranium and fluoride levels above the legal limit intermittently since 2002, but it could not afford the technology to remove the uranium.In July, it began buying water from the city of Lordsburg, which is less than 3 miles away.

Glen Acres resident Jacinta Marquez, 60, has lived in the colonia for more than 30 years. She relies on a disability check – on average $1,200 a month, according to the state – and spends about $20 on bottled water and nearly $75 on her water bill during the hot months, she said.

“We’re on a limited income here,” Marquez’s daughter Anna Marquez said.

Residents are also concerned about the quality of Lordsburg’s water, which also struggles to keep its fluoride levels low. They said they will continue to buy bottled water even though they get their water from the city…

This report is part of the “Troubled Water” project produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project by top college journalism students and recent graduates from across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Take a look back at The Texas Tribune’s five-part Undrinkable series, which revealed how border communities lack reliable, clean water despite a multibillion-dollar effort that has spanned decades. [Full story]

*Original article online at https://www.texastribune.org/2017/08/22/colonias-border-struggle-decades-old-water-issues/