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Water . . lines into two colonias \(rural farm worker city drinking water for the first time. \(In one of the bitter ironies that abound in stories of the poor, one of the settlements which will benefit is named Agua DulceThe Agua Dulce story may not seem like that big an event. It affects only about 100 families there and a similar number in an adjoining area, Llano Grande. It is, however, symbolic of the long, step-by-step struggle to bring safe drinking water to some 35,000 to 45,000 people scattered throughout the rural communities between the Rio Grande and U.S. Highway 83 in the lower valley. The colonias are the home of the poorest of the poor. Most are unincorporated and so lack normal urban services such as piped water, treated sewage, and street maintenance. Indeed, since streets are almost always unpaved and without any drainage systems to speak of, many are subject to frequent flooding. As well, the absence of water mains and sewage systems is an obvious contributor to a high level of communicable disease in the area. Viral hepatitis, bacillary and amoebic dysentery, and typhoid are not uncommon. Before the grant’s approval, Agua Dulce suffered from the same problem afflicting many other waterless colonias: forgetfulness. A major federal grant was awarded to Weslaco in October, 1973, but the money was quickly spent on the construction of a water line through other parts of the city and for water, sewer, and street improvements in a new industrial park housing a Haggar Slacks plant. Nothino was left for the colonias. Bringing water to Balboa Some hard work on the part of Colonias del Valle and Texas Rural Legal Aid brought the continuing needs of the colonias to the attention of the Weslaco city fathers and federal officials. The new grant is the result of these efforts. For Colonias del Valle, a community organization representing poor farm workers in rural Hidalgo and Cameron counties, Agua Dulce was just one more episode in what has been a nineyear struggle to bring potable water to this area of the “Magic Valley.” The energetic, ever-optimistic executive director of the organization, Alejandro Moreno, reflected on Norman DeWeaver has followed events in the Lower Rio Grande Valley for the last ten years. He is an economic development specialist with the Center for Community Change in Washington, D.C. 10 The Texas Observer some of this experience recently in a special hearing on rural water problems held in Austin under the auspices of the National Commission on Rural Water. “In these nine years, we have learned of the difficulties of achieving this goal of bring potable water to the colonias,” Moreno said, noting that no one is responsible for providing safe drinking water to rural residents. “In South Texas we identified over 20 governmental units or agencies with authority over some aspect of water, yet not one was actually responsible for assuring that good water is available outside incorporated towns. Therefore to secure water requires the good will and cooperation of many individuals and entities.” The “entities” involved in building a water line into Colonia Balboa illustrate Moreno’s point. Balboa is a small subdivision just south of the McAllen airport. Its 250 families achieved a certain amount of national fame as the result of an Observer had no water, no sewer, no drainage. While its families hauled water from sources of doubtful quality or simply drank out of irrigation ditches, they could see the lush, well-watered greenery of a nearby golf course. They were also able to watch the city of McAllen build a water line hard by the subdivision to serve the Foreign Trade Zone property further south. After pressure from Balboa residents succeeded in capturing the attention of McAllen city officials, Colonias del Valle helped hammer out a financing package involving the city, Hidalgo County, the community action agency, Colonias itself, and Laura Eisenhour one federal agency, the Economic Development Administration. Inter-agency cooperation led to the construction of the water lines into Balboa. However, the new mains didn’t bring the residents any water. Along the way, McAllen agreed to annex the subdivision, which it had already surrounded. Then the city came up with a new interpretation of an existing ordinance which it decided to test in Balboa. The city decided no householders could hook up to the water lines until they started to bring their homes up to city code requirements, especially those mandating indoor plumbing. Undaunted, Colonias del Valle went out and found $100,000 to help finance the required improvements for needy Balboans. A majority of the families finally are able to meet city standards and hook into the water system. Largest water project Elsewhere, the largest project in the Valley bringing water to colonia residents moves ahead. Construction is substantially complete on the first phase of the Military Highway Water Supply Corporation system. The MHWSC project is designed to bring safe drinking water to more than 2,000 homes in the colonias along U.S. 281, the Military Highway, from Las Milpas, south of Pharr, downriver to San Pedro, near Brownsville. With the single exception of the town of Progreso, near one of the international bridges, none of these communities has ever had a central water supply system. Collectively, these colonias represent the largest home base of chicano migrant farm workers in the United States. Five years in the planning, the MHWSC system consists of 135 miles of pipeline, two water-treatment plants, three 100,000gallon elevated storage tanks, one groundlevel tank, a small administrative building, and a maintenance yard in Relampago. MHWSC will buy most of its water from the water-treatment plants of the larger Valley cities, Harlingen, Weslaco, and Alamo. Construction started last September. Those elements of the system that are directly tied in to nearby cities are already in operation. Places like El Gato, a tiny farm worker settlement along an irrigation ditch down the road from Alamo, are now getting water. MHWSC manager Arturo Ramirez estimates that some 700 families are already hooked up in El Gato and a number of other colonias. MHWSC looks like a big success story, but here again progress has come mixed with a generous dose of pain. After MHWSC’s pipe was finally in the ground, tests revealed a major problem with the jointsthey gave under pressure. A costly and time-consuming process of replacing sections of pipe is likely to lead to protracted litigation involving MHWSC, its general construction contractor, and the pipe supplier. At issue: who should pay to dig up and re-lay the pipe. There were other problems. After MHWSC negotiated a purchase agreement