Undrinkable-Many along Texas border still live without clean, safe water

March 19, 2015 | General RCAP News

"Along the Texas-Mexico border, nearly 90,000 people are believed to still live without running water. An untold number more — likely tens of thousands, but no one is sure — often have running water of such poor quality that they cannot know what poisons or diseases it might carry," reads the beginning of a recent series of articles from the Texas Tribune. Click here to read their in depth look at water issues along the Texas border. 

For over 30 years, RCAP and its partners have been working with border communities.  Below, Robert Stewart, RCAP's Executive Director, reflects on the work of Communities Unlimited, the Southern RCAP, on the border.

Community Resource Group – Communities Unlimited Activities in the Texas Colonias by Robert Stewart

RCAP through its southern regional partner, Communities Unlimited (formerly Community Resource Group – CRG) has been working to help residents of the colonias in Texas for thirty years.  Our work in this area was strengthened in 1987 when the Ford Foundation funded CRG to place assistance providers along the border to identify colonias needs, to seek infrastructure funding to provide water and wastewater services, to work with existing utilities to expand services into the colonias, and to conduct outreach and policy efforts to bring increased attention by federal and state entities to the needs of the colonias.

I was one of the CRG staff who, starting at that time, worked for many years on a variety of colonias issues.  Numerous other CRG staff including Mary Baiza, Robert Gracia, J. B. Martinez, Roberto Ramirez and Raul Gonzales also worked along the border during those early years and beyond through support from the Ford Foundation and USDA Rural Development (RD).  Our initial efforts involved working directly with members of the colonias, with nearby utility providers, with state and federal agency staff, and through collaborations with other organizations dedicated to advancing the interests of the colonias, such as the Industrial Areas Foundation, Texas Rural Legal Aid, the National Council of La Raza, and other community-based organizations. 

Recognizing the special needs of the colonias, including that for substantial levels of infrastructure funding, the State of Texas in 1989 created the Economically Distressed Areas Program (EDAP) to provide for funding colonias needs and to create regulations to prevent the establishment of new colonias lacking essential services.  CRG staff worked extensively in Hidalgo, Starr, Zapata, Webb, Hudspeth, and El Paso counties to access both EDAP and RD funding (and to provide technical assistance), and these efforts continue today.  Our involvement in the colonias has taken many directions including short term management of water utilities in El Paso and Webb counties, management and finance assistance to dozens of utilities serving the colonias, short-term loans to meet water service needs, and creation of affordable housing opportunities. Of note is that RCAP/CRG has made over 40 short-term loans to utilities serving colonias; financing that was not available from any other source.

During the nine years I was with CRG much of my time was spent working projects in Starr County.  In 1994 the Texas Office of Attorney General obtained a judgement and permanent injunction against a major colonias developer in that county which lead to my being appointed as receiver and trustee for those assets covering some 14 colonias.  After I left a year later, CRG’s work continued for many years enabling colonias residents to receive clear title to their property and for the improvement of utility services in the county.  Communities Unlimited continues to devote its time and resources to helping meet the challenges of providing service to colonias residents.  However, much work still needs to be done as is highlighted in this series from the Texas Tribune. 

Finally, through funding from USDA RD, RCAP is in the process of conducting a comprehensive assessment of the colonias along the entire U.S. – Mexico border that will include recommendations on how to meet the remaining water and wastewater needs in these communities.