By Shannon Kelleher
Growing up in south Texas, 25-year-old Joaquin Duran always wondered what it would be like to have running water. Before he was born, Duran’s parents moved from Juarez, Mexico to a small community called Cochran that lies within El Paso County. They hoped the enclave of Mexican-American families would be a safe place to raise their children and offer advantages not easily attained in Mexico.
The plot of land Duran’s parents purchased in Texas lacked running water when they settled in, but they were promised service was coming – only a year or two away. The family decided the wait would be worthwhile and they made the plot their home. During the day, Duran’s mother would scrub old concrete off the cinder blocks her husband retrieved from demolition work through his construction job. At night, they built their house from the salvaged materials.
Now, a quarter century later, water still has not arrived – for the Durans or for anyone else in the dry, dusty community of Cochran.
“My parents would protest and go to water district meetings,” said Duran. “They would be told, ‘Yes, you’re getting the water soon.’ All these promises. But in the end, nothing would happen.”
The long wait may be about to end.
Construction of the necessary water lines began July 7 through a collaboration between the nonprofit human rights group DigDeep and local officials and a Texas-based nonprofit. The project is expected to be completed by October.
But when Cochran residents finally get clean running water in their homes, many similar small and largely Latino communities along the border will be waiting.
Cochran is one of over 2,000 colonias along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to a 2015 report by the Rural Community Assistance Partnership. About 840,000 people live in these substandard housing developments, including over 134,000 that are not served by public water systems, waste treatment facilities, or both. The vast majority of residents in colonias are Latino. Nearly two-thirds of adults and 94% of children and adolescents living in these communities are US citizens, according to a report by DigDeep.
In many cases, the colonias are unincorporated “donut holes” – islands of scarcity surrounded by communities where clean running water is taken for granted.
“Some smaller colonias are still these no-man’s lands where services might be just a few blocks from the edge of the colonia yet they’ve never been hooked up,” said DigDeep CEO George McGraw. “That’s what we call a ‘donut hole’. They sit there in plain sight.”
In 2021, Congress allocated $30 million to the U.S.- Mexico Border Water Infrastructure Program of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – an improvement over recent years that still pales in comparison to funding from decades past. Congressional financing for EPA programs on the border peaked at $100 to $150 million from 1996 to 2001 but dwindled to $15 million by 2014. The Trump administration proposed to eliminate funding for the U.S.-Mexico border program altogether.
Trucking in water
Duran and his family have learned to survive in the desert without running water, but it hasn’t been easy. They used to haul water from his sister’s house a 15 minute drive away, but after their truck broke down repeatedly they started paying to have non-potable water delivered. When the trucked-in water arrives, the family stores the supply in a 2,500-gallon tank, treating it with chlorine they hope kills any harmful bacteria.
A pump pushes the water into pipes that run throughout the house, allowing the family the water they need to wash dishes, flush the toilet, and shower. In the summer, they spend about $190 per month on water deliveries. The pump breaks down every year without fail, creating an additional expense.
If they want water to drink, the Durans must drive to a kiosk, where they pay coins to fill up 5-gallon jugs. To wash their clothes, the family opts to use a laundromat in order to save water at home.
Over the years, many of Cochran’s residents have left. While the community has 64 lots, today there are only 23 houses. All of Duran’s siblings have moved away, and he plans to do the same.
Duran currently works at an immigration detention center, making sure families and children have what they need. After completing his education, he plans to pursue a career in drug enforcement. He has put off leaving home because he did not want to leave his parents alone to cope with the regular work of bringing in water.
Now, with the water line construction underway, Duran feels he can move on with his life.
“I’m happy to see they’re finally going to get it. I honestly didn’t think anything was going to happen,” he said.
Colonias first emerged in the 1970s and 1980s as a result of programs designed to enable Mexican and central American laborers to work strenuous jobs in U.S. farms and manufacturing plants. Since the workers couldn’t afford to live in urban centers, they often fell victim to predatory land developers peddling cheap patches on undeveloped and undesirable land in the desert.
“They would parcel that land off and advertise it as ‘your affordable slice of the American dream,’” said McGraw. “They would sometimes say that a subdivision would have streets and lights and playgrounds in a few weeks or a few months.”
The developers often presented aspiring homeowners with a now-illegal type of contract requiring monthly payments before the deed would be signed over. Families who missed a single payment might lose their land.
“The lucky ones were able to pay off their contracts and get ownership of the land, but those services they were promised never materialized and the owners mostly disappeared,” said McGraw.
Beginning in the late 1980s, the Texas Legislature enacted a series of bills to prevent such speculative practices. Programs emerged to serve the struggling communities. Today, many larger colonias near urban centers have received utilities, but hundreds of smaller and more remote ones, which are costlier to service, have been left behind.
“Cochran is like the poster child for why this problem exists and what happens,” said McGraw. “Really, this is a confluence of poor economic development controls and structural racism.”
McGraw adds that other marginalized communities across the US increasingly face similar water scarcity predicaments.
DigDeep’s latest annual water report reveals that the number of Americans without running water or proper sanitation is growing. Currently, it’s more than 2.2 million people.
“You have this core of folks that never had service – people living on reservations, rural communities of color, agricultural communities, and these colonias,” said McGraw. “But they are being joined increasingly by communities impacted by climate change in places like Alaska or the Southwest and by communities where there have been major economic shifts.”
In small colonias that persist without basic utilities, securing enough water to survive remains part of everyday life.
“You’ll get it however you can,” said McGraw. “If you have a car, you might drive to get it. If you don’t, you might hitch a ride. If you can’t find a ride, you might take a horse or you might walk. If you don’t have access to any of those things, you might try to find a surface resource, even if it’s dirty.”
Climate change has rendered surface water sources less reliable, worsened flooding on land where many colonias are located, and raised concerns about fires that residents cannot extinguish.
“We’ve been worried a couple of times when there have been fires near our house,” said Duran. “A fire truck can come in, but if there’s no fire hydrant nearby, what are they going to do?”
Lack of water access also leaves residents vulnerable to water-borne illnesses, diabetes from drinking sugary beverages in lieu of water, and anxiety and depression.
“Cochran is no longer what it was when it was first parceled off in the mid-80s, which was this community of tens of families that were banding together to build the American dream with a lot of excitement and hope,” said McGraw. “Now it’s a place where people feel stuck and would leave if they could.”
DigDeep is covering the costs of connecting Cochran homes to water and sanitation systems, placing meters and hydrants, while El Paso County will cover costs for others services.
“If you live in the middle of a city, it’s not something you think about a lot or ever have a chance to see,” said Chilton Tippin, a cultural anthropology graduate student at the University of Colorado Boulder who has conducted research in Cochran.
“What they needed and wanted was the dignity and respect, the basic humanity that comes along with being included in societal infrastructure,” said Tippin. “All these border cities are projecting upward population growth, yet the funding is coming in at an inverse proportion to that. I think that is a recipe for hardship and more problems in the future.”
(This story is co-published with The Guardian.)
(Featured photo is of a home in the Cochran colonia. Photo Credit: DigDeep)