Lines & Shadows

A former farmworker wanted only a utility system for her Fort Bend colonia. Seven years later, there's still tainted water and untreated sewage -- but raw words and the stench of politics flow freely.

The 18-wheeler retreated with a snort, then rumbled forward again. The driver finally succeeded in finessing the vehicle's bulk onto the narrow road and coasted slowly past the house trailers, creaky frame homes and cheering onlookers lining the ruts of San Carlos Street.

He came bearing a cargo of gifts from the Ozarka Water Company: 14,000 gallons of drinking water for the residents of Rio Brazos, a hard-bitten Fort Bend County community just north of Rosenberg.

Volunteers joined neighborhood kids in unloading the heavy crates of bottled water and distributing them to thankful residents as television crews filmed the action. This was one of those soul-wrenching yet ultimately uplifting sagas of the human condition. Here was a neighborhood where the people drank from contaminated water wells and lived awash in raw sewage from overtaxed septic tanks.

Residents say rain sends the gully sewage into the Brazos River.
Deron Neblett
Residents say rain sends the gully sewage into the Brazos River.

For years they had fought for standard utilities, but their location in unincorporated territory combined with spotty attention from local government to keep them living in third-world squalor. Now a generous corporation responded to their pleas, at least with a little short-term relief. There was good reason to rejoice on that day more than a year ago.

And no one could have been happier than Hortencia Hernandez, a former field-worker who had become a warrior for Rio Brazos water rights. But squarely at the center of these festivities was her new ally, the enigmatic Helen Reid. The self-styled lobbyist already had clashed with the political establishment in a stranger-than-fiction battle against their former landlord, state Representative Charlie Howard of Sugar Land.

Now Reid was an avid defender of Rio Brazos who somehow managed to get the bottled water brought in. The crowds gathered and the news cameras rolled as the blond in red, white and blue basked in the moment. She thanked the water company and spoke passionately about the community's needs, decidedly unapologetic about turning the spotlight on one of Fort Bend's dirty secrets.

Hernandez already knew how area leaders were reacting to the grand gesture and media event. State Representative Dora Olivo of Rosenberg, who had worked for years to try to solve the unhealthy conditions, called earlier that day. She demanded to know what was going on.

"You're embarrassing the county!" Hernandez quoted Olivo as yelling.

"Well, the county has been embarrassing my people for 40 years," Hernandez replied.

The legislator demanded that the activist distance herself from Reid. Hernandez says Olivo advised her, "You don't even know her."

That warning was too late. When the big truck disgorged its bounty, Hernandez believed she had found a champion in Reid, truer and infinitely more effective than any she had known in this frustrating fight for Rio Brazos.

"Nobody has ever done anything for our community. Nobody," Hernandez says. "She proved to us it can be done."

Tucked amid cotton fields and the meandering Brazos River from which it took its name, Rio Brazos emerged largely of its own devices and out of public view for decades. A developer put up the first frame homes in the 1950s on small unplatted lots. Low-wage laborers like Salvador De Leon snapped up the properties, grateful to find affordable homes for their families.

De Leon, a retired wood-mill worker, was a 30-year-old father of three when he moved into Rio Brazos in 1956. He paid $5,000 for a house on a lot that measured only 50 by 120 feet.

"I knew what I was buying, but I couldn't find anything better around here," he says.

From the beginning, it was clear that utilities were going to be a problem. Since the community lay beyond the reach of municipal water and sewer lines, each home came equipped with a septic tank and water well.

The tanks soon overflowed. With inadequate drainage, sludge gathered on the ground in clumps indistinguishable from mud except for the stench. Rain caused the murky effluent to range dangerously, prompting worried parents to keep their children indoors.

Problems worsened as more families poured in from across the region and Mexico, increasing the number of households to close to 40. Today many houses sit on cramped lots far too small to safely accommodate both a septic tank and a well. Tests of wells have disclosed high levels of fecal coliform, a potentially deadly bacteria.

Virtually nobody drinks the water. Some residents are reluctant even to bathe or clean with it. In addition to being contaminated, it smells bad, causes unexplained rashes, and leaves white fabrics yellow after washing. Some complain of stomach viruses, bouts of nausea and other ailments, although De Leon says the water never has made him sick.

High turnover in Rio Brazos has exacerbated the community's steady decline.

Those in it for the long haul like De Leon and his neighbor Marcelino Arguello have tried to fight the foul tide by maintaining their septic units and repeatedly replacing their wells with deeper ones.

Arguello, a retired construction worker whose paunch, ruddy cheeks and thick white beard make him a dead ringer for St. Nick, proudly invites a visitor to see the world he has fashioned with his own hands since moving into the neighborhood 22 years ago.

The 68-year-old native of Michoacán, Mexico, plunked down more than $3,300 for a new well a couple of years ago. He keeps the well protected under a metal lean-to and wrapped in insulation to keep it from freezing up, but nothing can prevent the stoppage of water when the electricity goes out, as it does regularly.

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