Twenty-three years ago, Olivia Figueroa left her neighborhood in Chihuahua, Mexico, where she didn't have basic services, and immigrated to the U.S. She paid $40 to cross the Rio Grande, only to arrive to another community that also lacked services — often referred to as a colonia — in San Elizario, Texas. As in Mexico, the colonia had no electricity, no paved roads, no sewage and no drinking water.
“And that’s when I said, ‘Where’s the American dream?’ ” Figueroa said in Spanish. “I didn’t think that here, in the United States, in the most powerful country in the world, there would be lack of services.”
All along the U.S.-Mexico border, about 840,000 mostly low-income, immigrant Latinos have settled in colonias – cheap plots of land outside city limits without basic infrastructure such as water and sewage systems, electricity and paved roads.
A News21 analysis of census data indicates that across the United States, the average income in predominantly Latino unincorporated areas is 40 percent lower than the average income in predominantly white unincorporated areas, making it harder for these communities to deal with water quality issues. Colonias exemplify some of these problems.
As of 2015, an estimated 30 percent of colonia residents didn’t have access to safe, clean drinking water, according to the Rural Community Assistance Partnership, a national nonprofit group.
News21 visited colonias along the border – in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas – and examined how residents deal with water contamination and why it’s so difficult to improve their condition.
Colonias often face complicated government bureaucracy and limited budgets that make it hard to secure funds to fix problems. Residents are often poor, with little education, and some are undocumented. And since many residents say they are not civically engaged, they feel invisible to their elected officials.
Colonia residents also have to face the public perception that they chose to settle in their communities knowing they lacked services.
“There are attitudes out there that these people moved into these subdivisions on their own, consciously, and they should not be expecting the state to bail them out,” said Texas state Sen. José Rodríguez, a Democrat from El Paso. “The fact that (colonias) exist in other parts of the border along the U.S. reflects some similar attitudes.”
The word colonia means “neighborhood” in Spanish. The federal and state governments use the term to describe settlements along the border that lack infrastructure. Colonias can be traced to the 1950s, but some argue they’ve been there longer.
Thousands of mostly immigrants – both legal and undocumented –who couldn’t afford to live in the city settled in colonias. County and state regulations did not require developers to provide basic services if the land didn’t exceed a certain number of lots.
“If you look at the history of these communities, they were unscrupulous land sales,” said Gina Nuñez, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Land developers would tell colonia residents: “ ‘Don't worry. Those services are coming. The county is growing, and they're going to provide those services,’ ” El Paso County Commissioner Vince Perez said. “We still haven't been able to deliver (water and wastewater) service to residents who have been waiting three decades.”
About 90 percent of the colonias – roughly 2,000 of them – are in Texas, according to data from Texas and the Rural Community Assistance Partnership. It was the first border state to legally recognize colonias and allocate funds for them.
In the early 1990s, after a population boom, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Agriculture officially recognized colonias as neighborhoods within 150 miles of the border that lack some basic utilities. The National Affordable Housing Act of 1990 required that all the border states set aside a percentage of Community Development Block Grants for colonias.
“We created ways for these communities to better compete for resources,” said Ed Cabrera, a HUD spokesman. “Despite these efforts, there’s obviously still a lot of need in these areas.”
Some colonias have their own water systems or receive water from nearby cities if they're close enough. Their treatment facilities, pipes, wells and septic tanks are too often old, or they can’t afford the technology to properly clean the water.
Araceli Silva moved to her colonia near Yuma, Arizona, 27 years ago because of the cheap price. She settled there after immigrating from Michoacan, Mexico when she was 17 to do farm work in the fields.
The 53-year-old mother of nine has struggled with her wells, which have run dry more than once. She doesn’t have the money to hire a professional because she stopped working after suffering severe back pain – a result of harvesting broccoli for so long.
Silva and her neighbors rely on individual wells because they can’t hook up to the city system.
Yuma County officials said they’re concerned when residents build wells without required permits. They know there’s often not enough separation between the wells and septic tanks, which can increase risk of contamination. And they fear some of the wells do not go deep enough. However, they said the residents must meet certain conditions before they can apply for funds to connect to city water. The first problem: The county won’t allow more than one house on each parcel. But since the residents already have multiple homes on each parcel, they won’t budge.
Residents who want access to water also would have to sign off on a petition and agree to pay for a preliminary assessment without first knowing the cost. The county would need to hire engineers to figure out if the project is viable and determine the expense. Residents would have to pay for these reports even if the project doesn’t happen.
“Some of them would call them a ‘blank check’ because they’re signing a petition without knowing how much it’s gonna cost them at the end,” said Nancy Ngai, Yuma County community planning coordinator. She said that, depending on the size of the project, those reports can cost nearly $100,000. Without the residents signing that petition, the county can’t help, she said.
After years of going back and forth with residents, the county gave up. “For the past 10 years, I really have not worked with them at all simply because there were too many roadblocks that I was just not able to find an answer to,” Ngai said.
For Silva, that means remaining in the shadows. “No one comes to this place to help,” Silva said in Spanish.
Lack of funding
The residents of Tornillo, a small unincorporated community in El Paso County in Texas, get their water from their own water treatment plant. But their system has tested positive for high arsenic levels for a decade, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Local officials tried to address the arsenic, which is naturally occurring in the region, but they couldn’t secure enough money to pay the $3.25 million needed for a new water treatment plant.
The El Paso County Tornillo Water Improvement District relies on property taxes and the revenue from water bills, which isn’t enough to pay for the upkeep of the new plant. The lack of funds is a common problem for these small water districts when they need to make major improvements. It means they must obtain a loan or seek help from the county, state or federal government.
Franciela Vega, business affairs manager for the Tornillo water district, said securing a loan wasn’t a viable option.“We knew that if we obtained a full loan, it wouldn't be affordable for the customers,” Vega said.
Vega said they never even thought of asking the county for money since it struggles financially as well. And when the district tried the state, it couldn’t secure a grant through the Texas Water Development Board’s Economically Distressed Areas Program, which provides water and wastewater funding for poor communities. That funding is quickly evaporating: Now there’s only $50 million left from its latest $250 million bond authorization in 2007.
“The bottom line is that a lot of these legislators feel they’ve spent a lot of money (on colonias),” said Rodriguez, the Texas state senator. “It’s really unconscionable that people didn’t give priority to these programs, for people that are essentially living in Third World conditions.”
Jessica Zuba, an administrator with the water development board, said these funds have serviced 300,000 colonia residents in Texas since the program’s inception in 1989.
The Tornillo district eventually got a federal grant through the Environmental Protection Agency’s border program, and it installed a plant in March.
But water-quality experts said federal funds face an uncertain future as well. President Donald Trump’s budget proposal eliminates all federal money allocated for water and wastewater projects through HUD’s block grant program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s water and wastewater program, and the EPA’s border program.
Even when water districts in colonias do find the money for major projects, they can struggle with maintaining their systems. Small water systems often have to charge their customers more because they can’t spread out the costs among a larger population base.
For example, the Tornillo district installed the treatment plant in March; however, the water district still had an arsenic violation in July, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The cost of any repairs will mean higher rates for residents.
Residents rely on bottled water
As colonias residents struggle with the long wait for clean water, they often turn to bottled water. Latinos rely more on bottled water than other minorities and whites, according to the 2015 American Housing Survey, and they spend nearly $2.17 more on commercial bottled water a month than non-Latinos, according to a study conducted by Vanderbilt University economist William Viscusi.
All along the border, dozens of small water bottles and gallon jugs pile up in homes because residents don’t think it’s safe to drink from the tap.
Residents from Glen Acres, New Mexico, rely on bottled water because they don’t trust the quality and don’t like the taste of the tap water from their own water system. It has had more water quality violations than any other system in the state, according to a News21 analysis of EPA data.
The system, which delivers water to 72 homes, has had uranium and fluoride levels above the legal limit intermittently since 2002, but it could not afford the technology to remove the uranium.In July, it began buying water from the city of Lordsburg, which is less than 3 miles away.
Glen Acres resident Jacinta Marquez, 60, has lived in the colonia for more than 30 years. She relies on a disability check – on average $1,200 a month, according to the state – and spends about $20 on bottled water and nearly $75 on her water bill during the hot months, she said.
“We’re on a limited income here,” Marquez’s daughter Anna Marquez said.
Residents are also concerned about the quality of Lordsburg’s water, which also struggles to keep its fluoride levels low. They said they will continue to buy bottled water even though they get their water from the city.
Lack of communication
Colonia residents say their water companies often don’t communicate with them, or they do so in English – despite the fact that about 30 percent of the Latino population in the U.S. border states speak limited English, according to a News21 analysis of Census data.
Some residents from La Union, New Mexico, said they didn’t even know their water, which comes from their own water system, was contaminated because they never received a notice.
Barbara Muñoz and her 87-year-old mother, who has dementia, diabetes and congestive heart failure, said she didn’t realize the water they’d been drinking for the past seven years had arsenic. Neither did nine of the neighbors contacted by News21.
“It sucks,” Muñoz said. “I’m disappointed.”
Since 2009, La Union Mutual Domestic Sewer and Water Association had 28 violations for exceeding arsenic levels, according to the New Mexico Environment Department. Their arsenic levels returned to normal in November last year.
Officials from the water company, which serves more than 900 people, said they have been informing residents when they mail bills. However, the state gave them nine violations from 2009 to 2016 for failing to notify their users of previous high arsenic levels.
Regulators issue violations when water systems fail to follow EPA standards or notify residents that their water is unsafe to drink. The EPA requires water systems to notify its users about potentially dangerous violations with “another method” – such as the telephone – in addition to mail to make sure all customers receive the information.
Rosa Maria Jasso, who has lived in La Union for 30 years, said she never drinks the water and only uses it to cook. She doesn’t trust the water, especially after her pet fish died when she used tap water to fill its tank. She didn’t know it had arsenic.
Colonias that have secured funds to improve water conditions have one thing in common: Community organizing. But mobilizing a community isn’t easy. Leaders sometimes have to overcome opposition from their neighbors.
“They tell us, ‘What do you gain from doing this?’ Sometimes (they say), ‘Why do you care?’” said Arturo Padilla, a community leader from Horizon View Estates, a colonia in El Paso County.
The residents of Horizon View Estates must rely on septic tanks for waste disposal, but they often overflow and residents can’t afford new ones.
Padilla tried to persuade the city water utility, Horizon Regional Municipal Utility District, to build a sewage system in Horizon View Estates. He called a state senator, the county commissioner and a state representative and invited them to Horizon View to listen to residents. He handed out more than 200 flyers inviting residents to a meeting so officials could talk about funding options for the $10 million sewage project.
Hundreds of residents from Horizon View Estates attended. But after the meeting ended, some residents said they were disappointed and didn’t think it would make a difference.
Padilla is afraid that people will lose interest and won’t care, he said. Or even if they do, they won’t do anything about it.
In border communities, undocumented immigrants often don’t want to interact with officials or call attention to themselves because they’re afraid of deportation.
Lorena Hernandez, a Tornillo resident, said undocumented immigrants in Tornillo won’t accept free water filters from a nonprofit. They won’t go to the water district meetings either. They told her if they go to the meetings, officials will tell them: “What are you complaining for if you’re not from here?” she said in Spanish.
Perez, the El Paso commissioner, said race, ethnicity and legal status place an additional barrier when trying to solve water issues in these communities. Many residents won’t even report crime, he said. And if they’re afraid to call the police, they’re probably afraid to report problems with their water.
He said the problem has worsened under the Trump administration.
“Being on the border, unfortunately, we have a front-row seat to just all this unfolding,” Perez said. “(There’s) this atmosphere of fear that I've never seen before, and it's really unfortunate … I don't think that this is what America used to represent.”
In California’s eastern Coachella Valley, not too far from exclusive golf resorts and luxury hotels, hundreds of decades-old mobile home parks that lack access to clean water are scattered near grape, citrus and date fields.
Sergio Carranza, executive director of the nonprofit Pueblo Unido Community Development Corp., has used his engineering background to design cost-effective filtration systems in those colonias – or polancos, as they call them in California – that are too far away to consolidate with the city.
Back in his home country of El Salvador, Carranza did volunteer social work in his community during his country's civil war. So when he came to Southern California and noticed that Latinos were living in similar conditions as they did in El Salvador, he became a community organizer.
Carranza managed to bring a less expensive arsenic filtration system to St. Anthony Mobile Home Park, which has a contaminated well that serves as the main water source for the community.
In Horizon View Estates near El Paso, Cristina Morales joined Arturo Padilla’s efforts to install a sewage system.
She collected brown water from her tap in a bottle and carries it in her purse to show officials. She worked on a petition. She also started taking photos of the damage: sewage pooling in a backyard, a bathtub full of sewage water, sewage coming from a kitchen sink.
When she went to a utility meeting with Padilla, she said officials told them they could not speak to the board if they didn’t do so in English. “I told Mr. Arturo, ‘No, we don’t walk out. We’re not leaving,’” Morales said. Her daughter translated.
Morales is one of many women in colonias who have taken on the role of organizing and advocating for sewage and clean water.
“I refer to women as ‘chispas’ – sparks – because they have to ignite the energy and enthusiasm in their neighbors to want to gather and organize and advocate for themselves,” said Nuñez, the anthropology professor.
That was the case in San Elizario, Texas, where a group of women who lived in colonias — including Olivia Figueroa — formed the nonprofit Adults and Youth United Development Association Inc.
“We didn’t have a title,” said Figueroa, the organization’s executive director. “We were just housewives who didn’t know English. But we had, and we still have, the necessity.”
Years ago, Figueroa and other women from the colonia began to meet regularly at one another’s houses and discuss what they could do to get basic services. Sometimes they met at abandoned houses.
Eventually, they bought an old house, demolished it and built a new one to house their own organization. Figueroa said most of the colonias in San Elizario now have tap water, sewage, paved roads and electricity, a feat she thinks would have been slower if left up to government officials.
“If you see the authorities not doing anything, then we have to do it ourselves,” Figueroa said.
This report is part of the "Troubled Water" project produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project by top college journalism students and recent graduates from across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at El Paso has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.