A renewable power system at Xtreme Power’s headquarters. photo by Forrest Wilder “When they cut the wires, they clipped my wings:’ Martinez said. Martinez’s experience illustrates one of the catch-22s of state law. In the 1990s, the Texas Legislature passed a series of reforms aimed at stopping the proliferation of colonias. The laws prohibited colonia residents from obtaining electric service until they had water and wastewater. But water and wastewater cannot be installed until the community is properly platted, a long, tedious, and expensive process that can drag on for years or even decades. Residents with electric service at the time of the law’s passage were “grandfathered”they could keep their electricity. But if the property changed hands, the right to power was lost. Lawmakers hoped to make colonia life unattractive to potential newcomers, but people came anyway. As a result, the state has banned thousands of people from obtaining essential services. “There are places out there that have meter loopsthey’re emptythere are transformers within 15 feet of the house, but they can’t connect,” said Dean Schneider, an engineer with Texas A&M University’s Experimental Engineering Station. To residents of La Presa, the policy is absurd. “The longest it takes in Mexico for them to get basic services in new colonias is two years, even on properties that the people have appropriated without paying for them,” said Martinez with a rueful laugh. “Here, where everything is done legally, so much time passes.” Cuellar, who as a state senator was instrumental in passing the reform laws, said, “The intent was to stop the growth of the colonias, and we tried to come up with, quote-unquote, a compromise. The problem is, you still have some peopleI don’t want to say in limbobut who are still caught in a difficult situation.” The state doesn’t have an exact count of colonias in limbo, but the Texas Water Development Board estimates that 442with a population of almost 63,000in the six most-populous border counties, including Webb, still lack water and wastewater. Statewide, the water board estimates that an additional $885 million will be required to fill the water and wastewater needs of colonias. There is no estimate of those without electricity, but in Webb County hundreds of families still lack power in colonias spread all over the county. The unenviable task of denying colonia residents utilities in Webb County falls to Rhonda Tiffin, the county planning director. “It’s not an easy job to be the Wicked Witch of Webb County:’ she said. We deal with the victims. We impose the rules on the victims.” Last year, Tiffin took her case to the Legislature. She and border lawmakers sought a simple legislative fix: Rescind the ban on utilities for existing colonias. The bill, authored by Rio Grande City Democratic Rep. Ryan Guillen, who represents dozens of colonias, including La Presa, sailed through the Legislature. But on the last day of the session, Republicans torpedoed the legislation, complaining it was an affront to private property rights. In particular, they were unhappy with a provision that gave border counties zoning authority, a tool the counties have long sought to regulate development. “How long is it going take before we don’t have any freedom to use our land as we choose?” asked Sugar Land Republican Rep. Charlie Howard. The La Presa power project cleverly cuts through this knot. Because the project is technically temporary and the “microgrid” terminates at a RV-style outlet outside each homerather than connecting directlythe system skirts the connection prohibition. In the scorching hot summer of 2005, frustrated with the lack of government action, about 40 La Presa residents descended on the office of then-Webb County Judge Louis Bruni. They demanded that the county do something to speed the arrival of basic services, especially electricity. “This is a matter of life and death; these children don’t even have a fan,” Patricia Gonzalez said at a press conference at the time. “What’s it going to takea child dying of heat stroke?” The county officials complained that the developers and the state were to blame. The commissioners passed a resolution calling on state authorities to declare a “local state of emergency” and asked for a change in state laws prohibiting 16 THE TEXAS OBSERVER AUGUST 8, 2008
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