Water Crisis in the United States, Part 4: Colonias

colonias-in-texas-300x292Recently 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.

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A Texas colonia residence

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.

colonias_lots_for_sale-300x201Fortunately, 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.

Vending machine in Hidalgo, Image courtesy Wendy Jepson www.wendyjepson.net
Vending machine in Hidalgo, Image courtesy Wendy Jepson
www.wendyjepson.net

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.

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Leticia Jones has received several business loans from LiftFund and now the future of her catering business is bright. Image courtesy dallasfed.org

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.

In Conclusion

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.Subscribe-to-our-newsletter1

Water Crisis in the United States, Part 3: Lead in Drinking Water

24234972202_550138a446_o-300x202Part three of our four-part series on water crises in America is on lead contamination. Instances of lead in drinking water, such as the situation in Flint, Michigan, have become a hot topic in the media. Lead in drinking water is a problem that reaches far beyond the disaster in Flint, with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stating that roughly 10 million American homes and buildings still receive water from service lines that are at least partially lead. When water has high acidity or low mineral content, it can cause these service lines to corrode and leach lead into the water supply. Without mitigation, water from lead service lines has the potential to cause adverse health effects, particularly in children.

The EPA states that, in the last three years, only nine U.S. states are reporting safe levels of lead in their drinking water. These include Alabama, Arkansas, Hawaii, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Tennessee. This means that 41 states are consistently reporting higher than acceptable levels of lead in their drinking water. The problem is not only the lead service lines connecting water mains to homes and buildings, but also the lack of proper treatment to prevent corrosion of these lead pipes.

History of Lead Pipes in the U.S.

Residents of Flint, Lead solder holding pipes together can also contaminate the water that passes through your system.
Lead solder holding pipes together can also contaminate the water that passes through your system.

The use of lead pipes for water distribution has a centuries-old history. In the U.S., installation of lead pipes on a major scale began in the late 1800s, particularly in the larger cities. At one point, more than 70% of cities with populations greater than 30,000 used lead water lines. Lead pipes had two significant advantages over iron: they lasted almost twice as long and they were malleable enough to easily bend around existing structures. Of course, now we see the health risks associated with lead, and water systems across the country have taken steps to eliminate lead pipes in their distribution systems. Water companies and municipalities now must decide whether to replace all the lead pipe in their drinking water system, including home service lines on private property, or continue to add corrosion-control chemicals at the plant to prevent leaching of lead into the water supply.

Utilities and the Government Take Action

Water companies and municipalities across the country are working diligently to get lead out of our drinking water. Since replacing all of our nation’s lead piping may take over 20 years, utilities have found a short term solution to control the amount of lead in their drinking water. They are focusing on the treatment process and monitoring what makes up the drinking water. Introducing orthophosphates to the water supply and flushing all the standing water creates a scale of protective coating on the interior surfaces of lead pipes, reducing corrosion. This limits the amount of lead that leaches into the water and offers a short term solution as we figure out how to permanently replace all lead pipes from our water distribution systems.

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Orthophosphates added to treated drinking water has created a protective coating on the interior surface of this lead pipe.

In Wisconsin, the Madison Water Utility has become a national model for cities struggling with lead in their drinking water. They are the first major utility in the nation to demonstrate that a full replacement of both the public and the private portions of lead service lines is possible. This involved working with residents to remove lead service lines from their homes and nearby property. The project started in 2001 and has provided safe drinking water to 5,600 property owners. The plan, which was very controversial at the time, is now hailed as a model and has spurred other utilities into action. For example, Boston Water and Sewer Commission (BWSC) implemented a program that offers a credit of up to $2,000 and interest-free loans to assist homeowners who are willing to remove lead pipes on their property. BWSC also has a searchable online database for homeowners to see if their property has a lead service line.  Also, the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority (MWRA) announced earlier this year that it will provide $100 million to its member water communities to fully replace lead service lines, including residential lines. These utilities are shining examples of the many organizations taking a long term approach to this national crisis.

Recent news reports of lead in drinking water and the controversy surrounding testing methodologies have acted as a catalyst for public schools across the country to test their water. Unfortunately, many of these tests indicate high, potentially dangerous, levels of lead concentrations in public drinking fountains, sparking outcry from parents and prompting a series of public meetings. In response, the EPA changed lead testing regulations on February 29, 2016 and now require utilities to use wide mouth bottles, conduct no pre-stagnation flush, and to run faucets at typical flow rates when testing for lead — precisely the opposite of how testing had previously been conducted. While many people have been quick to blame utilities for lead in their drinking water and have even gone so far to suggest that utilities have been practicing testing “cheats,” they were in actuality following protocol issued by EPA.

The EPA is also considering changes to the Safe Drinking Water Act’s rules regarding lead, and an advisory panel has proposed a more proactive approach to replacing lead pipes. The proposal would encourage public water systems to replace lead pipes versus waiting for lead levels to spike to take action. This plan involves substantial increases in funding to water companies and municipalities for the replacement of lead pipes in both the public and the private portions of lead service lines, including residential lines. With this additional funding, water utilities across the country will be able to set goals for a permanent solution to our nation’s lead crisis. Admittedly, we have a long road ahead of us as many cities simply do not know the exact number or location of lead pipes in their system. Add to that the cost and person power required to replace our nation’s lead service lines, and it becomes apparent that a 100% lead-free infrastructure is still many years away.

What Can You Do?

When water sits stagnant in lead service lines for even a few hours, it picks up lead from the pipe, which can make using your faucet hazardous. Find out if your home is serviced by lead service lines by calling your local water department. This is especially important to homes built prior to 1980. If your home still has lead service lines, you can reduce the risk of lead contamination in your drinking water by taking some simple steps:

  • Call your State Department of Public Health for health information, or visit their website.
  • Run tap water until after the water feels cold. Flushing pipes in this way before use assures that you are not drinking water that has been sitting stagnant in pipes.
  • Never use hot water from the faucet for drinking or cooking, especially when making baby formula or food for small children. Hot water from your faucet has a higher chance of containing traces of lead. Instead, use cold water and heat it on the stove or in the microwave.

In Conclusion

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The good news is that lead contaminated water crises like the situation in Flint, Michigan have called for stricter regulations and replacement of nearly six million lead service lines nationwide. The not so good news is that we still have a long way to go to completely remove all lead in our water systems. Nearly all homes built prior to the 1980s still have lead solder connecting copper pipes, and some major U.S. cities still have 100 percent lead piping that delivers water from the utilities to homes and businesses. Replacing lead service lines is the safest way to prevent lead contamination, and public and private water companies must work together with state and national organizations to replace lead pipes in all of our water distribution systems. Solving our lead contamination crisis will benefit everyone if we work together for a permanent solution. After all, everyone deserves safe drinking water.
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