By Elizabeth Zach, RCAC staff writer
Chaparral, New Mexico – Driving on a weekday morning through this remote enclave of mobile homes, bodegas, squat adobe health clinics and Pentecostal chapels, one wonders: “Where are all the people?” The roads, many of them gravel, are just as empty as the dusty sagebrush badlands that stretch north to White Sands National Monument and south to Fort Bliss and El Paso. South is where you will find Chaparral’s residents, working in the restaurants, hotels and stores.
Colonias are generally defined as those disadvantaged communities within 150 miles of the US-Mexico Border.
While the Chaparral colonia may appear impoverished, there’s a smattering of ship-shape homes with small gardens and swept walkways.
Mostly, though, there are barbed wire fences, tumbleweeds and mesquite surrounding makeshift rusty mobile homes and, occasionally, battered mattresses and plastic bags of trash left by the roadside. Zoning regulations are non-existent; vandalism all too prevalent. Signs here and there urge residents to report illegal dumping. There are landfills, but there’s also a $12 monthly fee to use them, which most here cannot afford.
Most of the seven thousand households in the area use septic systems and other, sometimes rudimentary, means of on-site waste disposal that too often overflow or malfunction.
It costs $7,500 to buy a mobile home in Chaparral, a formidable sum to the majority of residents. That cost does not include the land or connection to utility services. Most of the seven thousand households in the area use septic systems and other, sometimes rudimentary, means of on-site waste disposal that too often overflow or malfunction. In the last few years, a $20 million wastewater plant was constructed but only a portion of the population can pay the connection fees.
On the other side of the tracks – across Interstate 10 – colonias like La Union and La Mesa seem like older, more successful siblings to Chaparral. Established in the 1940s during the bracero program, Mexican contract farm laborers went to work in the U.S. to replace the thousands of Americans fighting abroad during WWII, and meanwhile established homes as best they could with limited means. Today these colonias have sturdy homes, neatly paved streets, and colorful, inviting store fronts.
The different land use zones in different counties along the border, or the lack of any type of zoning ordinances and the numerous jurisdictions in which the colonias are located – stretching along the 1,954 miles of the Mexico-U.S. border, from Texas’ Gulf of Mexico coastline to southern California’s Pacific shores – have made it difficult for the U.S. government to accurately measure economic and infrastructure progress and, at the same time, assess needs in the four border states.
But in 2009, the U.S. Government Accountability Office recommended that an inter-agency task force be formed to examine and finally identify the colonias’ most pressing problems. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) joined forces and started a five-phase regional study, focusing on water and waste disposal, public health, environmental quality, economic status and past public investment. The first phase was completed in December 2013.
Now, the second phase that started in June 2014 is complete. Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) coordinated the work while Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) inventoried the infrastructure needs in colonia-designated communities in California, Arizona and New Mexico and Communities Unlimited (CU) documented the needs for Texas. Olga Morales, Deb Patton and Joanne Johnson from RCAC contributed to a report released on July 30. This second phase concentrates on water and wastewater availability in the colonias and includes recommendations for infrastructure projects. In some cases the recommendations extend to other infrastructure needs such as reliable roads and electricity; encouraging community involvement and local leadership; and increasing technical, managerial and financial capacity.
“Did it capture all needs? No,” said Morales, RCAC regional environmental manager. “But for a community like Chaparral, it highlights the most pressing ones, including water and wastewater.”
Communities Unlimited led the team that developed an expansive geospatial database to characterize 2,177 colonias in the 35 border counties. The data include details on demographics, existing water and waste disposal infrastructure, the incidence rate of waterborne infectious disease, and access to indoor plumbing. The report’s authors also worked with state and county officials, utilities that serve the colonias, engineers from the border area and colonia residents.
“It was a tremendous amount of detailed work,” said Mark Rounsavall, RCAP program director at CU. The database includes 80 different fields of information on each colonia plus information on 400 water and wastewater utilities that serve all of the counties in the four-state region.
“We had to have data points for latitude and longitude for each colonia,” Rounsavall explained. “We had to show where water lines are, if a colonia was being served, if they weren’t and if not, if existing water was adequate. We had to include which wastewater disposal was being used and if it is adequate. We interviewed hundreds of people, residents, utility providers, state and county officials, and came up with cost estimates for many projects.”
USDA Rural Development, which funded the report, initially asked that the work be completed within six months.
“We knew that was impossible to do,” Rounsavall said, noting that USDA agreed to extend the timeframe an additional six months.
According to the report, limited access to drinking water and poor wastewater infrastructure contribute to health risks in the colonias, many of which are classified as in “high need” of technical, managerial and financial assistance. The authors write that, “As is true for rural infrastructure funding in general in this country, most of the remaining needs are in the smallest, most geographically isolated colonias, which lack economies of scale and are difficult and expensive to serve.”
In 2009, RCAC assisted eight New Mexico colonias served by five small water districts, to create a single regional water district, the Lower Rio Grande Public Water Works Authority. The merger allowed eight communities, Berino, Desert Sands, Mesquite, Vado, La Mesa, Montana Vista, Del Cerro and Las Palmeras to merge their water systems’ assets and liabilities, to share water rights, declare a service area, float revenue bonds and, at the same time, allow each community to remain autonomous.
It sounds win-win, and many communities have gone that route. But others fear losing their identity.
“Regionalization is like a dating dance,” Morales said. “We ask them, ‘What do you want your community to look like? You define that vision.’ They get to decide how deep a commitment they want to get into, how much to consolidate, how much to work together, and what sort of legal agreements to enter into.”
RCAC is one of six regional agencies that together, serve the entire country. These six organizations make up the Rural Community Assistance Partnership, Inc. (RCAP) network. All six organizations are “on the ground” working directly with rural communities and have a common experience and knowledge base (primarily with environmental infrastructure). RCAP maintains an office in Washington, D.C., which provides direct access to policymakers on the national level.