Health Risks Of Living In US Border Colonias Prompt Funding Increase Proposal

A water storage bucket near Presidio, Texas. The Texas Secretary of State said 38,000 Texans living in border settlements known as colonias have no running water. The Obama administration proposes that the four border states receiving federal funding for low income housing increase the amount those states spend for colonia improvement. (Lorne Matalon)

A water storage bucket near Presidio, Texas. The Texas Secretary of State said 38,000 Texans living in border settlements known as colonias have no running water. The Obama administration proposes that the four border states receiving federal funding for low income housing increase the amount those states spend for colonia improvement. (Lorne Matalon)

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A version of this story also aired on the Texas Standard from KUT Austin

Thousands of mostly poor Hispanic people live in border communities called colonias with no access to running water or electricity.

Now, the Obama administration wants the four border states that receive federal funds for colonia improvement to increase spending there by 50 percent.

The announcement comes as scientists say potential health consequences of living in colonias are too severe to ignore.

“We all complain about stomach problems, cramps, diarrhea,” said Ivette Lujan at a colonia north of Presidio, Texas.

There are at least 2,500 colonias in the four states bordering Mexico, the vast majority in Texas.

Some were established in the 1880s as lodging for Mexican laborers, others to the 1950s when developers sold cheap tracts of land in unincorporated lots to low-income buyers.

Buyers said they were assured water lines would be installed by nearby towns. In many cases, that never happened. Today, the Texas Secretary of State says 38,000 Texans on the border have no running water.

“And no one should be without that essential liquid,” said Lujan.

At another nearby colonia, Israel Juarez raises chickens in a patch of sepia-toned desert flatland.

To get them — and his family — water, he makes a six mile round trip to Presidio several times a day in the heat of summer.

He hooks up his portable tank to a spigot at a water filling station inside city limits. When he gets home, he pours the water into a metal tank. Then he drains the water into bottles or pots.

At each stage, there’s a risk of contamination.

But it’s the only water he can get.

“It’s hard. You have to carry the water. And I can only bring so much each time so I have to do it a lot,” he said in Spanish.

Bill Hargrove isn’t so much concerned about the inconvenience.

It’s health risks that he thinks about. Hargrove heads the Center for Environmental Resource Management at the University of Texas at El Paso.

“We’re in the process of doing a health impact assessment,” he said.

Hargrove said evidence suggests higher than normal rates of water-borne disease in colonias.

“It’s a major problem, also in the developing world,” he said.

“This has been shown over and over in development work that one of the deficiencies is adequate clean water.”

But change may be in the works.

“I think things could come together in just the coming months,” he said.

Each year, the federal government gives states money to improve low-income housing. They’re called Community Development Block Grants.

The Obama administration’s proposed budget for 2016 — now before Congress — authorizes Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California to increase the percentage of grant money going to the colonias to 15 percent.

The current maximum is 10 percent.

There may be opposition to using that extra allowance on colonias. States will still receive the same amount of money in block grants. So other state stakeholders may resist taking more money from the same pie to colonias.

But Texas Republican Congressman Will Hurd hopes border states will support using the extra federal money on colonias.

“You know, it’s something that I can do, is talk to local officials, I mean it is a concern,” he said.

In Presidio, Economic Development Director Brad Newton is also hoping. He wants the federal funds to run pipes to Israel Suarez’ home.

He said it’s sad that many buyers were taken advantage of generations ago.

“I’ve heard the term ‘sins of our fathers.’ We really can’t be blamed for that,” Newton said.

But Presidio is making plans to put pipes in the ground.

“We’re well into it,” he said. “We’ve done a rate study and a water study.”

Federal money for these border projects is far less than what’s needed to for real community development. Newton said the extra funds next year — if Obama’s increase goes through —  are desperately needed to build a pipeline and extend Presidio’s water into the colonias.

From Texas Secretary of State:

“Because of the potentially serious consequences for public health and its effect on quality of life, one of the greatest concerns regarding the colonias is the lack of wastewater infrastructure and potable water.”

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