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.

More problematic is the septic tank. Arguello says he has it cleaned out regularly at a cost of more than $100 a pop. But with no room for drainage areas, he routes "black waters" into a gully out back.

The underground trajectory of wastewater flows beyond his fence into a sludge-choked ditch that runs like a fetid moat between San Carlos Street and the woods out back. Rains carry the sewage all the way to the Brazos River, Arguello says.

Their situation is hardly unique. Even as income levels soar and new master-planned developments spread far and wide in Fort Bend County, a handful of downtrodden communities like Rio Brazos continue to haunt the region. Known as colonias, a term typically applied to squalid areas along the border, they pose a looming health crisis.

Hortencia Hernandez: "I'm not asking to go to the moon. I'm asking for water."
Deron Neblett
Hortencia Hernandez: "I'm not asking to go to the moon. I'm asking for water."
Andy Meyers: Public assistance is needed for Rio Brazos.
Andy Meyers: Public assistance is needed for Rio Brazos.

There are ample indications that area government was content for decades to conveniently ignore the colonias altogether. Only when a bizarre mishap brought one of their own face-to-face with the filth did local officials wake up to the troubling reality.

On a night in May 1994 a sheriff's deputy responding to a disturbance call chased a suspect behind a house. Suddenly the ground gave way under the officer. The next thing the deputy knew he was trapped inside a septic tank. Another officer had to rescue the stunned, dripping deputy.

Health inspectors wasted no time in paying a visit to the colonia. They would make two discoveries: the wretched conditions and a dynamic firebrand who would lead the once forgotten community of Rio Brazos.

Hortencia Hernandez grew up in Rosenberg, the tenth of 11 children born to undocumented farmworkers from Mexico. She dropped out of school in the eighth grade to join her parents full-time in the fields. For years she lived the itinerant life of a migrant, following the cotton harvest across Texas to far-flung places like Abilene and Lubbock.

Hernandez spent much of her adult life raising a family. At the age of 57, she has been married three times and is the matriarch of a large brood that includes six children and 23 grandchildren. She and her husband, a mechanic, moved into Rio Brazos 13 years ago.

When health investigators invaded the colonia after the incident with the deputy in 1994, Hernandez says, she was just one more upset resident fearful of losing her home. After all, the county threatened residents with criminal charges and fines of up to $200 a day if they did not correct the problems.

The sudden county interest struck residents as a shakedown. Where had the authorities been all those years that the health hazards festered and grew? Amid protests by Hernandez and others, the county took a lenient approach. Residents could avoid penalties if they tried to correct the problems.

Thus commenced an epic of hand-wringing. Alarmed officials spoke ominously of waterborne diseases and expressed particular dismay at how residents routed effluent into the ditch.

"The ditch that the sewage runs down is close enough for the threat of water well contamination. Close enough for small children and their pets to play in," said then-health director Walter Culpepper.

"We're all hoping that no child dies of a disease, or in a homemade cesspool, or gets sick or dies from tainted water," District Attorney John Healey said.

Hernandez evolved into the spokesperson for Rio Brazos in the charged atmosphere of emergency community meetings initiated by the county. She says she emerged as a voice for the neighborhood because "nobody else was willing to commit themselves to something like this."

A fiery soul with dark eyes, a fleshy nose and a well-maintained bouffant of brown hair, Hernandez admits she had no concept of the odyssey on which she was about to embark. She could hardly imagine the cast of politicians, government agencies and nonprofits that would enter and exit the picture, nor the endless meetings, reams of letters and daily phone calls. Least of all could she fathom just how hard it would be to get modern utilities to Rio Brazos.

Still, her zeal is uncontainable. "I'm not asking to become a millionaire. I'm not asking to go to the moon. I'm asking for water," she declares, in a voice made raspy from smoking. "I just want "blue gold' for my people."

In the early going, Hernandez saw reason for hope. Community members met with numerous local and state politicians and U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. A representative from Hutchison's office, as well as officials from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Roman Catholic Auxiliary Bishop James Tamayo toured the colonia.

In 1995 Fort Bend Interfaith Council, a grassroots group then co-chaired by Dora Olivo, took a leading role in the effort. The county continued to meet with the community to strategize. Hernandez was excited -- plans for a water and sewer project appeared to be on the way to reality.

In 1996 Hernandez and others formed the nonprofit Cummings Road Water Supply Corporation. It was designed to apply for funding to build the infrastructure, sign up potential customers and finally get the community on line.

The group took its name from the road that connects Rio Brazos to the nearby colonia of Tinsley Estates, which also is seeking utilities. Promising water meters and reduced connection fees, Hernandez collected membership dues from dozens of people and bought a computer, fax machine and other trappings of an upstanding organization. She converted her musty garage into an office.

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