Maricela Reyna and her family pay property tax on their home, located in an
El Paso County colonia. Yet they lack access to municipal water and gas services. Instead,
they hire a tanker truck to deliver water each week, and buy propane for cooking.
City trash trucks do not run down the unpaved road outside Reyna’s home, either.
Instead, she shells out $80 a month for a private hauler to take the family’s waste.
“And if you don’t pay within 10 days, they don’t service you no more. It’s crazy,”
A colonia, or residential area along the Texas-Mexico border, typically lacks
basic necessities such as potable water and sewage treatment. About 60 percent of
colonia residents in El Paso County live below or near the poverty line, with a median
annual income of about $29,000. By contrast, about 40 percent of all El Paso county
families live below or near the poverty line, according to the Dallas Federal Reserve
Board. More than 400,000 Texans live in colonias.
Maria Sotelo, whose home is in a San Elizario colonia, must drive 15 minutes
simply to find a patch of green space where her teenage sons can participate in sports.
“We need places where the children can play,” said the 40-year-old Sotelo, as
she stood in the community’s only “playground”—an overgrown field bordered
by a stable filled with goats and a horse.
“Children come here but the weeds are too high and they cannot play,” said
Sotelo, pointing to outdated metal swings. “My father would bring me here when
I was a child, and nothing has changed. We need a park.”
An even more pressing for many colonia residents, though, is the need for safe
drinking water. Studies find that improved water quality decreases the number and
seriousness of gastrointestinal illnesses and rashes people experience.
In response, faculty and graduate students at UTEP are collaborating on a
$500,000 grant to develop an affordable and user-friendly water filter, specifically
designed for colonia homes that rely on 2,500 gallon tanks for their water supply.
Civil Engineering Prof. Shane Walker is principal investigator on the project,
which will begin distributing test filters to residents this summer.
“Part of the problem is that colonias are so separated from the city of El
Paso—they’re so near and so far—that you usually don’t go by them,” said civil
engineering doctoral student Isaac Campos, who is working on the water filter
project. “So you’re unaware of their struggles.”
Nearly all the residents researchers approached about participating in the
study are “excited” about the potential to reduce their exposure to contaminants.
“They have the feeling the water they drink is not good for them,” Campos said.