Water is the common denominator for every living thing on earth. Without it, we simply cannot survive.
But even though this resource is so critical, 785 million people around the world lack access to safe water. According to a report by the World Economic Forum, the water crisis is the #4 global risk in terms of impact to society.
3 Sustainable Clean Water Ideas for a Warming World
Climate Change Brings New Innovation to the Water Environment
The summer of 2018 saw devastating fires blazing all over the world. Nearly 100 people died in raging fires across the southern coast of Greece. More than 50 wildfires scorched Sweden where the temperature north of the Arctic Circle soared into the 90’s causing drought conditions. Record breaking temperatures across the globe from Montreal to Great Britain topped 98 degrees this summer. In Japan, 22,000 people were hospitalized when temps climbed to 106 degrees. And, in normally cool Oslo, the thermometer climbed to 86 degrees for 16 consecutive days. From Southern California and Arizona to India and Pakistan, withering heat reached a deadly 110 degrees that parched the environment.
The most alarming news is the hottest temperature ever reliably recorded reached 124.3 degrees in Algeria this July.
Fires, heat and drought of this scope and scale seem to be becoming the new normal. These extreme events point to a planet that is warming and perhaps faster than scientists have predicted.
Although the effects of climate change may vary widely in different geographic regions, those areas already hardest hit with drought and arid conditions may be in the most critical need of clean drinking water.
This crisis will only get worse as the earth’s population conceivably could grow exponentially in the next 50 years and adequate supplies of water become even more scarce. In addition to supplying all these thirsty people with clean water, the chilling paradox is the increased demand on already-scarce resources means there is a greater chance that existing water sources will become polluted by human waste, industrial toxins, and contaminated agricultural runoff.
It is human nature to postpone change and sacrifice as long as possible. But it is clear that public service announcements warning residents to save water, take shorter showers, plant resilient gardens, and conserve, is not going to be enough to help avoid a global water shortage. Fortunately, scientists and researchers are working diligently to solve some very complex problems to provide innovative and sustainable clean water solutions for the future.
Here are three cutting edge ideas for sustainable water supplies that just may help a warming world.
Ancient Bacteria for Modern Water Purification
Anaerobic or oxygen-averse bacteria to treat wastewater is back in vogue… after a billion years. When the earth was a toxic primordial goo, anaerobic bacteria thrived in the oxygen deprived world forming the first signs of life. Environmental engineers at Stamford University are now bringing back these ancient microorganisms as a more cost-effective wastewater treatment process.
Wastewater treatment plants that use aerobic bacteria must provide oxygen with huge and costly electrically powered blowers for these microorganisms to survive. Anaerobic bacteria treatment processes do not need oxygen and use considerably less energy, making the wastewater treatment process more economical to operate. In addition to saving money, engineers believe these anaerobes can filter household and industrial chemicals better than conventional treatment plants.
Full-scale plants utilizing anaerobic bacteria may soon be capable of processing millions of gallons of wastewater per day into refreshing clean water.
Mega Scale Desalination
Desalination plants may not have been around as long as ancient bacteria, but this technology is not a new concept either. What is news however, is the increasing role desalination will have in the future. Israel’s Sorek desalination plant is the largest seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO) desalination plant in the world providing 627,000 cubic meters per day (m3/d) or the equivalent to about 166,000,000 gallons of water per day (gpd) to Israelis.
Desalination plants which were notoriously expensive energy hogs have become less energy-intensive as technologies have improved. Using renewable energy, such as solar, wind and geothermal along with advanced technologies including thin-film nanocomposite membranes, captive deionization (most suitable for brackish water), forward osmosis, and metal–organic framework (MOF) biological cell membranes that requires very little water pressure, water desalination is becoming more efficient and cost effective. The new cutting-edge membranes can even filter out precious metals such as lithium used in batteries.
Saudi Arabia, the largest producer of desalinated water in the world with its 32 desalination plants and growing, will soon be producing a historic 5 million m3/d or the equivalent of about 1,321,000,000 gpd, a global record of desalinated water. Benefiting from this leading-edge technology, Cape Town South Africa may have averted a catastrophic “Day Zero” when the City’s first desalination plant went online, preventing a water doomsday for its residents.With the world’s oceans holding about 96.5 percent of all Earth’s water and with more innovation, desalination may prove to be this thirsty world’s salvation.
Drinking Water from the Air
Another old idea that is gaining favor is converting fog into drinking water. Super-sized moisture collection systems could allow people living in coastal or mountainous areas to convert fog into safe drinking water. Collection traps are made from a 3D mesh that can withstand high wind speeds, while still retaining and accumulating water in storage tanks. With a variety of sizes available, these fog systems can be used for individual needs or supplying water for entire villages.
Combine this idea with giant Atmosphere Water Generators (AWG), which takes moisture or humidity directly out of the air and converts it into potable water. Even in the driest of lands, the air is loaded with water molecules and enough drinking water converted from AWG’s could provide communities with a continuous and sustainable source of clean water.
On a large scale, the AWG units can be mounted on the roof-tops of commercial or residential buildings. When powered by renewable energy, these systems can create safe local drinking water efficiently and economically. Water districts and municipalities managing these units, can provide as much as 55 m3 /d or about 14,500 gallons per day, enough to service each building independently with water.
Collected water from both fog collection systems or AWG’s may seem farfetched. But consider this, 80 percent of California’s water goes to irrigate farms and the other 20 percent of water use goes to urban use. Collected water from the air could be used to irrigate crops or other commercial watering needs.
Water conservation and alternative technologies such as fog collection systems and AWG units can supplement our increasing demand for clean water and these ideas just might may make a difference.
The Future is for Innovation
Combating climate change and managing our depleting water resources is a reality we can’t ignore. The devasting fires, drought and heat from 2018, is a reminder that our actions today may help avert a global catastrophe in the future. These innovative ideas and others still in development are one step forward to a more sustainable world.
Drinking Water contaminated with lead can be a health hazard.
Whether water comes from a Public Water System or a private well, water contaminated with lead is most likely the result from corrosion of the plumbing materials, lead pipes, or the service lines from the water main in the street to the building.
Here are some facts about lead contamination and tips to avoid lead in drinking water.
Please feel free to print and share our 6 Lead Facts Infographic with attribution to Tata & Howard, Inc.
Health Advisory Guidelines for Per- and polyfluoroalkyl Substances Detected in Public Water Systems
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) announced in early June, and through the Office of Research and Standards (ORS), its recommendations on the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule 3 (UCMR 3) for emerging contaminants-specifically Perflourinated Alkyl Substances (PFAS).
PFAS or Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are a group of man-made compounds that include perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perffluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS), perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), perflouroheptanoic acid (PFHpA), and perfluorobutane sulfonate (PFBS).
According the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), all these UCMR 3 PFAS compounds have been detected in public water supplies across the US. Since PFAS are considered emerging contaminants, there are currently no established regulatory limits for levels in drinking water. However, in 2016, the EPA set Health Advisory levels (HA) of 0.07 micrograms per liter (µg/L) or 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for the combined concentrations of two PFAS compounds, PFOS and PFOA.
MassDEP’s ORS established drinking water guidelines that follows the EPA’s recommendations for health advisory levels at 70 ppt, which applies to the sum total of five PFAS chemicals – PFOS, PFOA, PFNA, PFHXS, and PFHpA. And, if the level of contamination poses unacceptable health risks to its customers, Public Water Systems (PWS) must take action to achieve safe levels. They also must provide public notice.
The EPA and MassDEP’s recommended guidelines for PFAS include:
Public Water Suppliers take immediate action to reduce levels of the five PFAS to be below 70 ppt for all consumers.
Susceptible health-risk groups (pregnant women, infants, and nursing mothers) should stop consuming water when the level is above 70 ppt.
Public Water Systems must provide a public Health Advisory notice.
The EPA also recommends that treatment be implemented for all five PFAS when one or more of these compounds are present.
Although, PFAS are no longer manufactured in the United States, PFAS are still produced internationally and can be imported in to the country1. PFAS have been in use since the 1940’s and are persistent chemicals that don’t breakdown, accumulate over time in the environment and in the human body. Evidence shows that prolonged exposure PFAS can have adverse effects on human health and the ecology.
PFAS can be found in:
Agricultural products grown in PFAS-contaminated soil or water, and/or handled with PFAS-containing equipment and materials.
Drinking water contaminated from chemical groundwater pollution from stormwater runoff near landfills, wastewater treatment plants, and firefighter training facilities2.
Household products, including nonstick products (e.g., Teflon), polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products, and stain and water-repellent fabrics.
Firefighting foams2, which is a major source of groundwater contamination at airports and military bases where firefighting training occurs.
Industrial facilities that manufactured chrome plating, electronics, and oil recovery that use PFAS.
Environmental contamination where PFAS have built-up and persisted over time – including in fish, animals and humans.
While most states are relying on the EPA’s Health Advisory levels (including Massachusetts), some, such as Connecticut, Minnesota, New Jersey, Arizona, and Colorado have addressed other UCMR 3 PFAS pollutants as well.
Most research on the effects of PFAS on human health is based on animal studies. And, although there is no conclusive evidence that PFAS cause cancer, animal studies have shown there are possible links. However, PFAS ill-health effects are associated with changes in thyroid, kidney and liver function, as well as affects to the immune system. These chemicals have also caused fetal development effects during pregnancy and low birth weights.
PFAS are found at low levels throughout our environment—in foods we consume and in household products we use daily. PFAS in drinking water at levels higher than the EPA’s recommendations does not necessarily mean health risks are likely. Routine showering and bathing are not considered significant sources of exposure. And, while it is nearly impossible to eliminate all exposure to these chemicals, the risk for adverse health effects would likely be of concern if an individual continuously consumed higher levels of PFAS than the guidelines established by the EPA’s Health Advisory.
MassDEP is continuing its research and testing for PFAS in Public Water Systems. Large Public Drinking Water Systems have already been tested and sampling indicated that approximately 3% had levels of PFAS detected. MassDEP is currently working with smaller Public Water Systems to identify areas where PFAS may have been used or discharged to the environment.
As more information and regulations develop on this emerging contaminant, MassDEP will continue to communicate their findings. Tata & Howard is also available for any questions that may arise, as well as, assist with testing and recommend treatment options for our clients.
1 In 2006, the EPA and the PFA industry formed the PFOA Stewardship program to end the production of PFAs.
2 MassDEP in partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services (MassDFS), announced in May a take-back program to remove hazardous pre-2003 firefighting foam stockpiles and be neutralized. Manufacturers stopped making PFAS foam in 2002 and have since developed fluorine-free and more fluorine stable foams that are safer to the environment.
Water For People presents the Kenneth J. Miller Award
MARLBOROUGH, MA – Donald J. Tata was posthumously awarded the Kenneth J. Miller Founders Award presented by Water For People (WFP), a non-profit organization promoting the development of high-quality drinking water and sanitation services throughout the world. The ceremony took place on June 12, 2018 at the American Water Works Association (AWWA) Annual Conference and Expo (ACE18) held at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Karen M. Gracey, P.E., and Jenna W. Rzasa, P.E., Co-Presidents with Tata & Howard, accepted the award on Donald Tata’s behalf. “Don dedicated his career to improving the environment and he was particularly moved by Water For People’s efforts in bringing clean water to those in need,” Karen said. “He would be humbled by this nomination especially by an organization that meant so much to him.”
This year, Water For People expanded the Miller Award to include Workplace GivingChampions for which Don was recognized as a leader in the support of raising awareness to those in need of access to clean water.
Don Tata, who sadly passed away in 2017, was passionate about the environment and compassionate about the plight of those living in poverty without access to clean drinking water. He immediately supported the cause of Water For People when he was introduced to the organization through AWWA. Through Don’s fundraising efforts, Water For People has received over $66,000 since 2005.
Don not only supported the Water For People organization individually, he also shared his passionate support with the employees of the firm he co-founded, Tata & Howard, Inc. Employees continue to support WFP through a payroll deduction program, which Don initiated. At the end of each year, the company matches the employee’s donations.
Employees also participate in friendly competitions throughout the year to increase awareness and raise funds in continued support for Water for People. Don was also responsible scheduling time at company meetings to have representatives from Water For People update employees with information on the countries and people directly affected by their contributions.
His family, friends and colleagues were all profoundly impacted by his death in 2017, and even then, during that most difficult time, his family asked people to donate to Water for People in his memory in lieu of flowers. His friends and associates did and donated over $4,500.
Don is greatly missed by all who knew him, and Tata & Howard is committed to continuing his legacy and support of Water for People.
About the Kenneth J. Miller Founders’ Award The Kenneth J. Miller Founders’ Award was established in 2001 by the Board of Directors of Water For People to honor outstanding volunteer service to this international humanitarian effort. Water For People was conceived in response to the water, sanitation and health needs of millions of families living in the developing world.
The award was named to honor Ken Miller, who was one of Water For People’s founders, and supporter throughout his career. Each year, Water For People’s volunteer committees nominate one person for the award for the year. The winner is recognized and presented with a plaque at the American Water Works Association (AWWA) Annual Conference and Expo (ACE) during the Miller Award luncheon.
About Water For People From its beginnings, Water For People was envisioned to be a volunteer effort of the North American water and wastewater communities. The American Water Works Association (AWWA) leaders who organized Water For People believed that water professionals throughout North America would recognize the urgent need to support such a cause by contributing their financial assistance, organizational skills, and professional expertise. Local groups of water and sanitation professionals launched hundreds of active programs in support of Water For People. As the organization grew and began to accomplish its vision of service, it became evident that extraordinary volunteer efforts were being made at the local level and that this dedicated work needed to be publicly acknowledged and honored.
The search for a model individual to exemplify the value of volunteer service and to underscore the importance of this award led immediately to Kenneth J. Miller, one of the founders of Water For People and its first president.
About the American Water Works Association The American Water Works Association (AWWA) is an international nonprofit scientific and educational society dedicated to the improvement of drinking water quality and supply. Founded in 1881, AWWA is the largest and oldest organization of water supply professionals in the world. Its more than 50,000 individual members represent the full spectrum of the drinking water community: treatment plant operators and managers, scientists, environmentalists, manufacturers, academicians, regulators and others who hold a genuine interest in water supply and public health. Membership includes more than 4,000 utilities that supply water to roughly 180 million people in North America.
Earth Day 2018 marked its 47th anniversary on April 22 and the organization has declared this year’s theme as ‘Help end plastic pollution’.
It’s unimaginable to think how our lives would be without plastic. Plastics are so ubiquitous that we completely rely on its convenience, comfort, safety, low cost, and the multiple uses in thousands of products in our daily lives.
Flexible, resilient, lightweight, and strong, approximately a third of plastic used today is in packaging. Roughly the same amount is used in building materials such as plumbing, piping, carpeting, and vinyl. Other uses of plastic include automobiles, furniture, toys, and lifesaving medical supplies and devices. The plastics used in bottles and wrappers allow us to take food and drinks with us anywhere.
In a nutshell, plastics are indispensable and are widely used in our homes, offices, and industry every day.
But where does all this plastic eventually end up?
Some of it can be recycled. Quite a bit ends up in the trash and landfills. And more than you can imagine ends up loose as plastic pollution, eventually making its way into our waterways. There are millions of tons of debris floating around in the water—and most of it is plastic. It is estimated that up to 80% of marine trash and plastic actually originates on land—either swept in from the coastline or carried to rivers from the streets during heavy rain via storm drains and sewer overflows.
Therein lies the Earth Day challenge to help end plastic pollution.
Plastic, because it’s nonbiodegradable, can be around for up to 1,000 years or possibly even indefinitely, as compared to other forms of trash. Different kinds of plastic degrade at different times, but the average time for a plastic bottle to completely biodegrade is at least 450 years.
Consider the lifespan of these typical plastic products before they naturally biodegrade:
Plastic water bottle – 450 years
Disposable diapers – 500 years
Six pack plastic rings – 600 years
Styrofoam cups – 50 years
Plastic grocery bags – 10 to 20 years
Extruded polystyrene foam – over 5,000 years!
Our lives without plastic use is not going away anytime soon. But there are many small (although important) things we can do right now to protect our waterways and help end plastic pollution. The most obvious is to try to keep as much plastic as possible out of the waste stream in the first place.
These simple behavioral changes can have an impact:
Stop buying bottled water
Drink from reusable containers and fill with tap water. Consider that close to 50 billion plastic bottles are tossed in the trash each year and only 23% are recycled!1 If that isn’t’ enough to convince you to stop buying ‘disposable’ water bottles, a recent study by ORB Media, did testing of 259 plastic water bottles from nine counties that revealed microplastic particles in the water from 242 of the bottles.
Recycling seems obvious, but we can do so much better! According to The National Geographic, an astounding 91% of plastic is not recycled.3
The benefits of recycling is equally astounding. Not only does recycling reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills and incinerators, but it prevents (air and water) pollution, saves energy and money, creates jobs, and has a tremendous positive impact on the environment.1
To find our more on the specifics of recycling in your area, check out Earth911.org’s recycling directory.
Stop using disposable plastics
Ninety percent of disposable plastic in our daily lives are used once and then thrown out—grocery bags, food wrappers, plastic wrap, disposable cutlery, straws, coffee-cup lids, etc. In the United States alone, approximately 102.1 billion plastic bags are used every year.2 Start reducing waste by bringing your own bags to the store, silverware to the office, or travel mug to Starbucks.
Buy in bulk
Single-serving yogurts, travel-size toiletries, packages of snack food—all these items of convenience not only cost more but produce more trash than purchasing larger containers. Consider buying in bulk and in larger packages, then portioning out into smaller reusable containers.
Switch from disposable diapers to cloth
The EPA estimates that 7.6 billion pounds of disposable diapers are discarded in the US each year. 1 Use cloth diapers to reduce your baby’s carbon footprint and save money.
Cook more and pack your lunch
Not only healthier for you, cooking at home helps reduce the endless surplus of plastic packaging – take out containers, food wrappers, bottles, and eating utensils. Choose fresh fruits and veggies and bulk items with less packaging…and pack your leftovers or lunch in reusable containers and bags.
People around the world will celebrate Earth Day April 22. However, the challenge to help end plastic pollution can’t be a one-day event. Rather, we should strive to create a culture of environmental stewardship and make significant changes in our daily lives to reduce, recycle, and reuse our dependency on plastic.
Here in the US, we are fortunate to have access to clean water everyday—just turn on the tap and out pours some of the safest treated water in the world. But the water we take for granted every day—to brush our teeth, take showers, flush the toilet and for so many other reasons, is increasingly rising in cost. Continue reading Plugging the Leak on Rising Water Costs
The Holiday season means many different things for people. Whether it’s getting everyone the perfect gift, spending time with family, or preparing favorite foods for friends, the holidays are a time of giving. Our family here at Tata & Howard takes holiday giving to heart. We understand how important philanthropy is to both our local and global community. For this special time of year, we are looking at some of the most charitable and full-hearted organizations we’ve had the honor to support.
DARE Family Services
Since 1964, DARE Family Services has been committed to improving the lives of children who have been abused or neglected. By providing a family-based setting, they give children the opportunity to recover and live healthy, happy lives. Every holiday season, DARE Family Services reaches out to communities for gift donations to help kids experience a memorable holiday – in many cases, for the first time in their lives. At Tata & Howard, our employee-owners take DARE’s mission to heart and bring gifts to put under our DARE Giving Tree for children in need. Fortunately, we are one of many organizations and individuals who support DARE and their determination to better the lives of disadvantaged and neglected children. They help thousands of kids every year and we thank them for their generosity.
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, along with the Jimmy Fund, is home to groundbreaking cancer discoveries. They are one of the greatest examples of a philanthropic organization working for a worthy cause – curing cancer. There are seemingly endless ways Dana-Farber and the Jimmy Fund raise money and resources to give hope to families affected by cancer, especially during the holidays. Tata & Howard is a proud supporter of Dana-Farber and donated $5,300 towards cancer research this past November, and donated another $1,500 this week in lieu of sending printed holiday cards to clients and friends. Some of our employee-owners are doing their own part to help them out as well. Our Marketing Communications Manager Heidi White participated in their “Run Any Race” program and raised over $3,000 by running Ragnar’s Reach the Beach in New Hampshire this past September. Also, T&H Engineer Molly Coughlin is currently training for the 2017 Boston Marathon to raise money for Dana-Farber and the Jimmy Fund. Her personal goal is to raise $15,850 and we are all cheering her on. Go Molly!
Water For People
Over 1.8 billion people globally lack access to safe drinking water, and Water For People is looking to change that by committing to provide long-lasting water and sanitation infrastructure for communities in need. They operate in nine countries and have helped over four million people live better lives by providing access to clean water. To make this happen, Water For People works with communities, governments, and business owners to ensure reliable, safe water for future generations. In support of their passion for clean water, many employee-owners at Tata & Howard contribute to Water For People through automatic bi-weekly payroll deductions, which Tata & Howard matches dollar for dollar. In this way, we are able to do our part to realize Water For People’s mission of clean water for everyone, forever.
The Navajo Water Project
Speaking of clean water for everyone, the Navajo Water Project is an amazing organization that seeks to solve a little-known water problem. Of the nearly 200,000 Navajo population right here in America, 40% do not have running water – which has created a cycle of poverty that limits health, education, and economic security. As a subsidiary of DIGDEEP and primarily funded through private donors, the Navajo Water Project works with communities in Navajo Nation to install systems that bring running water and electricity into homes. The water is delivered via truck and safely stored in large cisterns, from which it is pumped into a sink and shower inside the home. The organization also installs solar energy systems to power the pumps and lights inside. With their determination and adequate funding, The Navajo Water Project expects to install home water systems in every Navajo home in need by 2018. Since we learned of the plight of the Navajo people in 2015, Tata & Howard has actively supported the Navajo Water Project. In 2017, which is our 25th anniversary year, we are organizing a national virtual 5K to raise money for this incredible organization. Participants will receive a beautiful medal and 100% of the cost of registration will go directly to the Navajo Water Project. Stay tuned for details of this exciting event!
The holiday season is the perfect time to give to others and to help the community, both locally and globally. Even the smallest gesture of generosity helps others in significant ways. And the best gift a person can receive is hope — and that is exactly what DARE Family Services, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the Navajo Water Project, and Water for People are all about. We here at Tata & Howard encourage everyone to give to someone in need and celebrate generosity this holiday season. Happy Holidays to you and yours!
Recently in the news, we have heard a lot about the nationwide lead in drinking water crisis and the need to update our aging infrastructure. In addition, the plight of the people living in Navajo Nation has been brought to the nation’s attention after being showcased in a video by CBS Sunday Morning News. However, there is yet another very serious water crisis in the United States that has garnered very little media attention, and this week, we will be concluding our four-part series on water crises in the United States by talking about colonias.
What Are Colonias?
Colonia translates to neighborhood in Spanish, and in the United States, colonias are primarily Hispanic neighborhoods found along the Mexican border in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas. With over 2,200 colonias, Texas has by far the most colonias in the nation, as well as the largest colonia population with over 500,000 residents. The modern-day colonia population is about 96% Mexican-American, with about 74% of those — and 94% of colonia children — being American citizens.
Colonias originated in the 1950s. At this time, less than honorable developers bought up worthless land along the Mexican border — such as land that was agriculturally useless or located in flood plains — parceled it into tiny lots with little to no infrastructure and sold it off to low-income immigrants in search of affordable housing. To this day, colonias are often bought through a contract for deed, which is a questionable financing method by which developers offer low down and monthly payments with a very high interest rate and no title until the loan is paid in full. Prior to 1995, developers did not typically record the transactions with the county clerk, leaving the buyer with virtually no rights. If they fell behind on payments, the developer could repossess the property quickly, usually within just 45 days, without going through the foreclosure process.
Fortunately, Texas passed the Colonias Fair Land Sales Act in 1995 to somewhat protect colonia residents who are forced to finance through a contract for deed. The Act requires developers to record the contract with the county clerk and to provide property owners with an annual statement that shows the amount paid towards the loan and taxes as well as the number of remaining payments. The Act also forces developers to itemize which services, such as water, wastewater, and electricity, are available, and whether the land is located in a flood plain.
While the Colonias Fair Land and Sales Act has improved contract for deed sales, there remain serious problems. Because property owners do not actually own the land or have a title, they cannot secure any type of financing that uses the property as collateral. Considering that colonia residents are typically well below the poverty level, any other types of financing are also unavailable to them, making it impossible to improve their property. Therefore, colonia residents typically construct their homes in drawn out phases as funds become available to them. Because of this, colonia homes often do not have electricity or even basic plumbing.
Challenges in Colonias
Arguably the most serious challenge facing colonias is the lack of improved water and sanitation services. Many colonias do not have public sewer systems and instead rely on rudimentary septic systems or outhouses that are often inadequate and overflow. And because the land is frequently in flood plains with poorly constructed roads that do not properly drain, sewage collects and pools, rife with bacteria and pathogens. Even colonias that do have sewer systems typically lack any type of wastewater treatment. Therefore, untreated wastewater is discharged into local streams that flow directly into the Rio Grande or the Gulf of Mexico.
Potable water also presents a challenge to colonia residents. Very often, inhabitants must buy water in drums to meet their needs, or, even worse, they utilize untreated water from wells that are contaminated. Some private companies have installed water “vending machines” that provide bottled water at an astronomical cost to residents who can ill afford it. Even colonias that do have water lines have major problems, because residents are unable to tie-in due to their homes not meeting county building codes; to meet the building codes, they need to have adequate plumbing — a true Catch-22 situation. In fact, housing in colonias is typically considered dilapidated by local inspectors. Residents often start with just tents, cardboard, and lean-tos, and make improvements little by little as funds allow.
Due to the lack of improved water and sanitation, as well as lack of electrical services, it should come as little surprise that health conditions in colonias are often deplorable. Hepatitis A, dysentery, tuberculosis, cholera, salmonella, and other diseases occur at an astronomically higher rate in colonias than they do in the rest of Texas, according to Texas Department of Health data. To make matters worse, most colonias do not have local medical services and have a serious shortage of primary care providers, and most colonia residents lack health insurance. Therefore, the average age of colonia residents is only 27 — a full 10 years younger than the national average. And, just as is the case in Africa and other developing areas, quality of health is directly linked to quality of education. Therefore, many colonia residents remain undereducated — 55% of residents do not have a high school diploma — causing the cycle of poverty to continue generationally. The unemployment rate in colonias is anywhere from 20-60%, compared with 7% for the rest of Texas.
Assistance to Colonias
Thankfully, through a series of public outreach initiatives, more attention has been brought to the existence of colonias and the third-world conditions in them. In the last 20 years, the Texas Secretary of State has been recording the infrastructure, or lack thereof, within colonias and providing a significant amount of funding — tens of millions of dollars — to improve these areas. And it is working, albeit slowly. Since 2006, about 100 colonias have been moved out of the “red” category, indicating the worst conditions. However, with over 2,200 colonias along the Texas-Mexico border, there is still much work to be done.
On a federal level, USDA Rural Development has grants available through the Individual Water and Wastewater Program for households residing in an area recognized as a colonia before October 1, 1989. The colonia must be located in a rural area and determined to be a colonia on the basis of objective criteria including lack of potable water supply, lack of adequate sewage systems, lack of decent, safe and sanitary housing, and inadequate roads and drainage. Grant funds may be used to connect service lines to a residence, pay utility hook-up fees, install plumbing and related fixtures like a bathroom sink, bathtub or shower, commode, kitchen sink, water heater, outside spigot, or bathroom, if lacking. Qualifying applicants must own and occupy their home, show income from all individuals residing in the home below the most recent poverty income guidelines, and not be delinquent on any Federal debt. The maximum individual grant for water systems is $3,500 and for wastewater is $4,000 with a lifetime assistance maximum not to exceed $5,000 per individual. Further information can be found on USDA’s web site. In addition, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in Texas, Arizona, California, and New Mexico has set aside up to 10 percent of their State Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG) funds for improving living conditions for colonias residents.
Fortunately, colonia residents are a very resourceful, tight knit group who are willing to work together and help each other, and some private and non-profit institutions have also become involved in the plight of colonia residents. For example, Texas A&M worked with residents on a water filtration project which involved making simple filters to make water potable. In addition, a non-profit lender called the LiftFund has provided loans to some colonia residents to assist them with starting a business. These loans have a very low interest rate and are given to people who cannot qualify for a traditional loan. Colonia residents are very often entrepreneurial in spirit, perhaps through necessity. After all, for years they have done what they need to do to get by, whether it be selling handmade crafts at flea markets or cutting up tires dumped along colonia roads and turning them into unique flower pots.
Colonias are a little known part of America that have conditions oftentimes no better than those found in developing countries. One of the biggest causes of generational poverty in colonias is attributed to lack of basic water and sanitation services, causing health and education issues. Just like the plight of the people living in Navajo Nation, it is shameful that people living in the richest land in the world do not have access to these basic human rights. Add to this the lack of charitable organizations supporting water poverty in the United States, and colonias qualify as one of the most significant, and heartbreaking, water crises in the nation.
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