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Home / Focus / Colonias on the border struggle with decades-old water issues

Colonias on the border struggle with decades-old water issues

"Before, all of this used to be a dump. If there was sewage and potable water, it would be all right," Araceli Silva said. (Photo by Maria Esquinca/News21)

“Before, all of this used to be a dump. If there was sewage and potable water, it would be all right,” Araceli Silva said. (Photo by Maria Esquinca/News21)

Nestor Alaniz didn’t get a permit to build a well in his mother’s backyard, and he didn’t get it inspected.

In fact, he didn’t even know how to dig a well. He learned by watching tutorials on YouTube while his brother, a construction worker, helped him drill the 25-foot-deep hole.

They built the well after the old one dried up for the fourth time. Their mother, who lives in a “colonia” – an unincorporated community – of about 400 residents outside of Yuma, had gone without water to her home for a year.

They didn’t have the $5,000 to $10,000 to pay a certified well driller, so they spent $1,200 to buy their own equipment and build it themselves.

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, officials said their hands are tied because the legal process to get things done is too complicated.

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.

 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. Jose Rodriguez, a Democrat from El Paso. “The fact that (colonias) exist in other parts of the border along the U.S. reflects some similar attitudes.”

Araceli Silva's sons drilled and installed a well in the backyard of her home in Wall Lane, near Yuma. (Photo by Maria Esquinca/News21)

Araceli Silva’s sons drilled and installed a well in the backyard of her home in Wall Lane, near Yuma. (Photo by Maria Esquinca/News21)

Historic 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 often are too old, or they can’t afford the technology to properly clean the water.

Wall Lane, Ariz., resident Araceli Silva said she buys gallons of drinking water at this nearby water station. "I never drink this water," she said of her tap water. (Photo by Maria Esquinca/News21)

Wall Lane, Ariz., resident Araceli Silva said she buys gallons of drinking water at this nearby water station. “I never drink this water,” she said of her tap water. (Photo by Maria Esquinca/News21)

Complicated bureaucracy 

Araceli Silva moved to her colonia near Yuma 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 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.

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