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EL PASO — Olga Thomas has a story about every plant in her garden. The creosote bush that her mother would brew into a medicinal tea. The ocotillo planted from seed that now towers over her. The prickly pear cactus that blooms yellow each spring.
Thomas, 72, began her garden in the late 1990s when she moved to a “colonia” 30 miles from downtown El Paso called Hueco Tanks. She raised her five children on this patch of land in the Chihuahuan Desert, transforming the rugged 2-acre plot into a home.
“It’s my little sanctuary, my oasis out here,” she said.
Hueco Tanks, developed under the name Hueco Mountain Estates, is among the dozens of colonias — unincorporated communities mostly in border counties — in Texas where low-income, Latino residents still are not connected to municipal water. But now, Thomas has a source of safe drinking water at home for the first time.
In late 2022, the Arizona-based company Source Global installed hydro-panels at her property that capture and purify water from the atmosphere. The panels use solar-powered fans to pull water vapor out of the air. Warm air inside the panel then liquifies the water vapor. Minerals are added to the water for health and taste.
“Water poverty is the one thing going in the wrong direction all over the world, even in the U.S.,” said Cody Friesen, Source Global CEO and a materials engineer. “We need to figure out how we’re going to solve that.”
The project reflects a growing sentiment that decentralized technologies can provide relief for communities that have been left out of traditional water infrastructure. Hydro-panels fit the model of a “soft path to water,” which includes conservation and rainwater harvesting, that academics in El Paso have described as an alternative for communities not served by hard infrastructure. Community advocates hope that scaling up cost-effective initiatives like hydro-panels could improve access to safe drinking water in colonias.
The long wait for water in Hueco Tanks, which state agencies recognize as a colonia, is a story repeated across border counties in Texas. While most residents of Texas colonias now have drinking water, a 2015 report estimated that over 4,000 still did not. But Texas continues to overlook the residents of colonias who lack water. Even this year’s record $32.7 billion budget surplus did not yield significant funding for infrastructure in colonias.
“If in the future it can get bigger and better to where you can get more water, oh my gosh, that would be great,” Thomas said. “But right now, for the drinking water, it’s a saver.”
Colonias residents go decades without running water
Colonias are residential subdivisions in unincorporated areas where developers sold property lacking all or some basic services, including water, sewers, paved roads and drainage. These communities began forming along the border in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas in the 1960s as Mexican immigrants came to work in the United States.
Thomas’ mother emigrated from a small village in Guanajuato, Mexico, to Laredo shortly before she was born. The family later moved to Chicago but continued visiting relatives in the border region, and her mother bought the property in Hueco Tanks in the 1980s.
By then Texas was facing increasing scrutiny of substandard living conditions in the border region. The state Legislature adopted laws in the late 1980s through the mid-1990s to prevent the formation of new colonias. Going forward, developers could not sell subdivided lots without basic services in counties within 50 miles of the border.
But developers James “Flip” Lyle and Jack Cardwell, who subdivided Hueco Tanks, sued the state of Texas to continue selling lots in Hueco Tanks without providing drinking water or sewer service.
In 1998, after Thomas divorced, she moved full time to Hueco Tanks. She bought a mobile home and enrolled her children at the local school. She enjoyed the rural location, over a dozen miles from the city, where she could wander through Hueco Tanks State Park and collect native plants. The family left for several years to the Houston area but later returned to Hueco Tanks.
Thomas knows that hardship comes along with living outside the city. But she doesn’t understand why the neighborhood never got water. Thomas remembers joining a protest in the early 2000s, when residents marched to demand water. “We were just completely ignored,” she said.
Drilling private wells in Hueco Tanks is prohibitively expensive because of the deep water table; much groundwater in the region also must be treated to remove high levels of total dissolved solids. Instead, residents pay a water hauling company to fill 2,500 gallon tanks at their homes, which typically last two weeks to a month. One delivery of water to Hueco Tanks costs $90 to $100, so residents conserve as best they can. They buy bottled water for drinking because the tanks can harbor water-borne diseases and other contaminants.
Lyle, the developer, disputed calling Hueco Tanks a colonia. He said because the lots are 5 acres and larger, residents can safely use septic tanks and haul water, and all prospective buyers are well informed about what they’re buying.
“We’re not colonias developers and never have been,” he said. “There is a lot of difference between some of these tiny lots that don’t have potable water and a 5-acre tract that doesn’t have potable water.”
“We have an impeccable reputation,” Lyle said.
Since the 1990s, federal and state funds have extended water and sewer infrastructure to the majority of colonias. The colonias that still lack public drinking water tend to be the most geographically isolated, according to a 2015 report by the Rural Community Assistance Partnership. In El Paso County alone, officials estimate there are still more than 1,000 residents without municipal drinking water.
This burden is not shared equally; a report by the Dallas Federal Reserve found that 96% of residents of Texas colonias are Hispanic or Latino and the average household income is $28,928. The report found the largest populations in colonias are in Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, Webb and Maverick counties; in South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley; and in El Paso, in far West Texas. And while many first-generation immigrants settled in the colonias, the Dallas Federal Reserve found that over 70% of residents are now U.S. citizens.
Despite ongoing infrastructure needs, in 2017 Gov. Greg Abbott eliminated the state’s colonia ombudsman office. The most recent Texas legislative session designated $1 billion for new water sources and water infrastructure. But an amendment to ensure “economically distressed areas,” which includes colonias, would have received a portion of the funding was struck at the last minute.
“A big part of it is that the state has stopped investing money in studying the problem,” said Laura Ponce, executive director of Project Bravo, El Paso’s community action agency. “Once you don’t have something to measure, it’s very easy to forget about.”
A “soft path to water”
When Ponce heard about a company working to provide drinking water to underserved communities, she thought the model could be a good fit for El Paso. Project Bravo partnered last year with Source Global, which fabricates and commercializes hydro-panels that use solar energy to extract drinking water from the air.
In late 2022, Source installed hydro-panels at four homes in Hueco Tanks, including Thomas’. Ponce said the end goal is still securing municipal water for Hueco Tanks, but in the meantime, the panels can meet an urgent need.
“Residents have been in a state of not having water for decades,” Ponce said. “But if we can cover the next 20 years of them having safe and affordable drinking water, that means there is going to be better health in the community.”
Friesen, Source Global’s CEO, said the panels borrow from the principles of renewable energy to “democratize” access to water, allowing people to produce water off-grid. The company has installed panels in communities around the world and closer to home, in the Navajo Nation. These remote communities are often the last to be connected to centralized water utilities and at the greatest expense.
Thomas’ two panels provide enough drinking water for herself, her two adult sons and even her two dogs. She no longer needs to buy bottled water, but she still uses hauled water for washing and other household needs. “It’s like having your own little creek with natural water,” she said.
“It’s less headaches worrying to make sure we have water to drink,” she said. “Mentally, just knowing that it’s good to drink with no other chemicals, it’s a relief.”
Project Bravo and SOURCE Global installed the panels at no cost to residents and are now seeking funding to expand the project. The panels communicate by satellite with Source offices, where staff identify any equipment malfunctions. In the future, residents would pay a monthly maintenance fee, which would cover repairs to the panels. Freisen said if the project grows, they hope to train technicians in the community to work on the panels.
Engineers and social scientists at nearby University of Texas at El Paso have researched the “soft path to water” as an alternative for communities where hard-engineered systems are not a reality now or in the near future. UTEP researchers William Hargrove, Nayeli Holguin, Chilton Tippin and Josiah Heyman defined the “soft path” as reducing water needs through conservation and implementing technologies including local water treatment, rainwater harvesting and point-of-use water filtration to meet water needs.
Tippin, now a doctoral candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder, said while “soft path” technologies can help the most remote colonia residents, he also questions the metrics that government agencies use to fund basic infrastructure. Many projects are judged by the “cost per connection” for water infrastructure, which disadvantages communities like Hueco Tanks where infrastructure is costly compared with the number of residents it would serve.
“There is a debt of justice owed to people who have endured across many generations in colonias,” Tippin said. “We should really think in those terms as opposed to these ahistorical ideas that it’s simply not affordable.”
County, advocates seek long-term plan for Hueco Tanks
The national nonprofit DigDeep, which works on water and sanitation issues, funded water connections for Cochran, another colonia in El Paso County, last year and has now expanded its work to Hueco Tanks. Vida Water, part of the nonprofit Texas Water Trade, is also working toward offering subscription-based drinking water treatment service to Hueco Tanks and other colonias in Texas.
JVA Consulting Engineers conducted a feasibility analysis for a potable water system for Hueco Tanks on behalf of DigDeep and the county earlier this year. The analysis found that extending water lines from the closest municipal water system, which is 13 miles west, would be economically infeasible. However, the study encourages the county to take a phased, decentralized approach to construct satellite wells and water treatment facilities in Hueco Tanks. The study also encourages rainwater harvesting as a supplement strategy. The study estimated there are 260 homes and 960 residents in Hueco Tanks.
El Paso County Commissioner Carlos Leon, who represents Hueco Tanks, said he is hopeful the hydro-panels can be part of the solution. He worries about more people buying property in unincorporated parts of the county without realizing the cost to get potable water is “untenable.”
Kathryn Lucero, project manager for DigDeep’s Colonias Water Project, said the groups will create a steering committee to coordinate and evaluate different technologies. “We want to make sure the community is a lead in everything that’s happening,” Lucero said.
Ponce, of Project Bravo, said that while the county considers paths to provide potable water in Hueco Tanks, the hydro-panels are one step to improving equity for colonia residents and changing public perceptions.
“Once we see the hydro-panels in the community, once we see them working and people getting healthier … then people will get more comfortable with the idea of investing in these communities,” Ponce said.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at El Paso has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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