Don’t Drink the Water

In the urban colonias of the Greater Houston area, the water stinks


When most Texans think about colonias, if they do at all, they probably envision squalid sun-bleached border communities marked by dirt roads and sewage-filled ditches. The Office of the Secretary of State defines a colonia as “a residential area along the Texas-Mexico border that may lack some of the most basic living necessities.” First among the missing necessities listed are “potable water and sewer systems.” It might come as a surprise then to learn that there are communities of Texans who live without these necessities residing within some of the state’s most affluent counties, hundreds of miles from the Rio Grande. In fact, the Texas Water Development Board estimates that 1.2 million Texans—just 200,000 of them in border areas—are in need of better water and wastewater systems and that providing those necessities will cost more than $4.5 billion.

Water Truck

Nowhere is the contrast between the prosperous and the poor more evident than in the Greater Houston area. According to U.S. Census data, the median household income in Texas in 1999 was $39,745. In Fort Bend and Harris Counties, respectively, it was $63,963 and $42,425. But tucked away in inconvenient corners between suburban boomtowns like Sugar Land and the mansions of Houston’s River Oaks are the urban colonias of Fresno, Arcola, and North Houston.

Curtis Kolojack

In the mid- to late-1980s, North Houston went from rural low-income to industrial poverty in the chaotic and unplanned manner in which development seems to occur in Harris County. Modest but gracious private homes on spacious lots devolved into a grimy urban landscape dominated by car salvage yards, auto detailing shops, and low-rent flea markets. What had been a largely black and Anglo population has grown increasingly Latino. Modern building codes and zoning standards are mocked by hundreds of recent-vintage homemade houses and add-ons that look like they were built on Saturdays when the inspectors were at home sleeping.

The U.S. Census Bureau stopped asking about potable water in 1990, but even back then, there were more than 36,000 homes in Harris County on individual wells. Fifteen years ago, it may have been possible to have both a well and a septic tank in the backyard and still be okay, but since then, as lot sizes have shrunk, the wells and the septic tanks have moved closer together. In rainy Houston, the results are often disastrous.

Alex Diaz is a Houston native who used to live in a blighted part of North Houston, in a house that drew water from a shallow well in the backyard. (Many wells in these urban colonias are as shallow as 50 feet.) Heavy machinery at work in a scrap yard three blocks away made his house vibrate. Diaz, who sells used cars, says his wife insisted the couple abandon the neighborhood, but he kept the house. “Every time it rains, you have to smell your neighbor’s [septic tank] overflow,” he says. “When the water backs up, the toilets don’t flush and the sinks drain slow.”

About three miles away and to the east of Highway 59, Israel and Mary Valdez reside in a well-tended home with rose bushes in the front. They’ve lived there for 27 years, raising three children. Israel worked as a machinist and Mary was employed with SBC. Both are retired now. When they first moved to North Houston, they could drink their well water. They don’t anymore. It smells too bad. “We use it for washing dishes,” says Mary Valdez, “but lately it has come out dirty from the tap.”

The couple is worried about the old Aspen Manufacturing site about a mile away. In August of 2003, trichloroethene (TCE) was discovered in a private well on the grounds of the recently shuttered factory where heating and cooling coils for air conditioners were made for more than 20 years. TCE, a man-made chemical, may increase the likelihood of childhood leukemia and cardiac abnormalities, according to the U.S. Public Health Service. At present, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has detected one instance in a nearby homeowner’s well in which the TCE level exceeded the legal limit of five micrograms per liter. Other nearby wells have shown smaller concentrations. TCEQ officials continue to monitor the situation.

Alex DiazWalter Tanner

What also worries Israel is the possibility of a fire. His house is not insured for fire for the simple reason that there are no accessible fire hydrants. “If the house catches on fire, it will burn,” he says dryly.

Next to the Valdez house is the Iglesia Bautista Principe de Paz. When Pastor Carlos Bonilla, a native of El Salvador, turns on the faucet in the bathroom at the front of the small church, it’s easy to smell the sulfur. “You wash your hands and they stay smelling from the water,” he says.

A local parishioner, Yolanda Vasquez, vacuums the rug in the chapel where 100 souls would be a tight fit. She doesn’t speak much English. She and her husband, who paints houses, are from Matamoros. They live with their four young children in a double-wide one street over. Two other close relatives live on the same block. Vasquez estimates that her family spends about $40 a month on bottled water.

Two miles northwest, in an area with the optimistic name of North Houston Heights, is the Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church. On the Tuesday after the first Sunday of every month, the North Houston Heights Civic Club meets here. The topic of discussion is often the bad water and overflowing sewage. The Walkers, sister Bessie and brother Jessie, are both members of the club. After 45 years in the neighborhood, it’s too late for them to leave. “We are here because we can’t do any better,” says Bessie Walker.

When she first came to North Houston from Louisiana in 1961, she says her house was the only home in her neighborhood on the west side of Highway 59. The well water tasted fine. Now the water has the foul smell of sulfur and she refuses to drink it.

She hopes help may finally be on the way. The neighborhood’s state representative, Kevin Bailey (D-Houston), has made getting potable water and sewage treatment for the district a priority. According to a recent study sponsored by the Texas Water Development Board, it will take $145 million to put water and sewers into the areas with the greatest needs. In addition to helping to create legal entities like local water authorities, Bailey has also convinced his fellow state lawmakers to broaden the definition for Texas’ Economically Distressed Assistance Program (EDAP) to include nonborder areas. Unfortunately, state leaders have slashed budgets for poverty assistance programs like EDAP.

“It’s a horrendous problem,” Bailey says of the water issues his constituents face. “The Harris County Public Health Department has said that some of these people are literally drinking their own sewage.”

Idamae BurgmanIsrael Valdez

Idamae Burgman sits in her housecoat on the couch in her trailer in Fresno located in southeastern Fort Bend County. Burgman has spent most of her 79 years in Fort Bend County. Her daughter Leola Smith recently moved back home after a stroke. “The water smells horrible,” Smith says.

“They’ve been telling us we are going to get water and sewer but we haven’t got it yet,” says Burgman. “We are paying for it but we don’t have any.”

Burgman’s words tell a story of hope and frustration that most residents here share. It has been eight years since area residents voted to create a Fresh Water Supply District. Three years later, they voted to add sewer powers to the district and approved a $.25 per $100 maintenance tax. City voters in Fresno also agreed via a referendum to a tax rate of $1.00 per $100 valuation once work on a water system gets under way. Still, nothing has happened.

After years of official neglect, when Fort Bend County Judge Bob Hebert took office in 2003, he decided to make getting potable water and adequate sewage for Fresno and Arcola a priority. He was the ideal man for the job, having worked for decades in the private sector putting together water deals. “We have case histories of raw sewage running in the ditches, over and over again,” he says. “Whenever it rains, these septic tanks run over and we worry about water-borne diseases. We haven’t had an epidemic yet, but we’re scared to death it could happen.”

Darla Spurny

Hebert says it will cost $48 million to bring water that residents can drink to the 10.1-square-mile area. Fresno and Arcola have a population of about 7,650, of which 50 percent are Latino and 30 percent are black. He is hoping the federal government will pony up $36 million for the project. Tax revenue and some scavenging by the county will raise the rest. Several months ago, Hebert had hopes that the county would receive a $20 million grant for the project as part of the 2005 reauthorization of the massive Water Resource Development Act. The county judge had a strong ally in then-U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Sugar Land). DeLay currently represents Fresno and Arcola. The funding got through the House but was stripped by the Senate. After the hurricanes, funding priorities shifted and Fort Bend officials are no longer optimistic. Nonetheless, in 2005, DeLay proved instrumental in getting $2.5 million for the Environmental Protection Agency to help nudge the water system toward completion.

With potable water probably still years away, residents are getting restless. For Fresno’s Darla Spurny, every fifth or sixth wash her clothes turn the color of rust. She has been living in her house for 18 years. The problem just grows worse. “Don’t even think about washing a white shirt,” she says. Yet within three miles of her house, brand new subdivisions with manicured lawns and artificial lakes are springing up as fast as anything ever grown in the farm fields they are replacing. Spurny is fearful that her tax money is supporting these new arrivals rather than water for the area in which she lives. “We are paying for their clean water and swimming pools,” she says.

D’Neal Krisch, who is in charge of community relations for County Judge Hebert, disputes that. She says the new homes are part of other utility districts created by developers. Those without water see another reality. Across the street from one such new subdivision, Elisha Hall and Walter Tanner are sitting on chairs drinking beer in an overgrown, undeveloped lot full of refuse, a car Tanner’s been fixing, and an old, beaten-down trailer. Both men reside in the neighborhood although neither of them lives on the lot, which belongs to Tanner. “They have water; we don’t have crap,” says Hall of the neighboring subdivision. “They’ve been telling us for 15 years [it’s coming] and overnight they got water and we don’t. If you’ve got money, you’ve got water.”