News Feature | September 11, 2017

Lacking Water Infrastructure, Immigrant Latinos Dig Their Own Wells

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome
@sarmje

texas border reg new

A lack of access to drinking water and wastewater infrastructure has some immigrant Latinos in poor neighborhoods along the border building their own wells.

After Nestor Alaniz saw that his mother’s well had run dry, he watched YouTube videos to figure out how to dig a new one, according to a report by News21 examining water and wastewater conditions in the “colonias.”

"Colonias" are neighborhoods in states bordering Mexico that lack some of the most basic living necessities, such as potable water and sewer systems, according to the office of the Texas Secretary of State.

About 840,000 immigrant Latinos have settled in colonias, News21 reported. A lack of access to adequate drinking water and wastewater infrastructure are two things that make living conditions difficult for colonia residents.

Alaniz and his family “didn’t have the $5,000 to $10,000 to pay a certified well driller, so they spent $1,200 to buy their own equipment and build it themselves,” News21 reported.

But building your own well comes with water quality risks.

“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, officials said their hands are tied because the legal process to get things done is too complicated,” the report said.

Around 30 percent of colonia residents lacked access to safe, clean drinking water as of 2015, News 21 reported, citing the Rural Community Assistance Partnership, a national nonprofit group. Ninety percent of colonias are in Texas.

“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,” the report said.

Complicated bureaucracy and limited funding are among the hurdles to clean drinking water for colonia residents, News21 reported.

Yuma County, AZ, officials “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,” the report said.

“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,” the report said.

Language is another roadblock in the pursuit of clean water in the colonias.

“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,” the report said.

News21’s Troubled Water project examined drinking water issues across the country.

Image credit: "U.S. - Mexico Border," shannon mcgee © 2013, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/