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.

Rio Brazos gained another ally when an environmental justice group from Texas Southern University's Thurgood Marshall School of Law took up the cause.

But for every prospect that seemed to open up to the little community, a slamming door was never far behind.

Local leaders give two primary reasons why they have been unable to root out the deplorable conditions in colonias: They have no statutory authority to do so. And it's hard as hell.

Marcelino Arguello regularly pays for septic tank maintenance but still faces problems.
Deron Neblett
Marcelino Arguello regularly pays for septic tank maintenance but still faces problems.
Colonia wells are better protected against the weather than the fouled water.
Deron Neblett
Colonia wells are better protected against the weather than the fouled water.

County officials contend that the very existence of colonias says more about hands-off state property laws than it does about neglectful leadership. Counties have limited authority over land use, says County Commissioner Andy Meyers.

If unscrupulous developers go into unincorporated areas and create unplatted, substandard settlements, there is little the county can do, Meyers says.

"I wish the county could stop it. Legally, short of going out there with a gun, I can't figure out any way of doing it," he says. For the vast areas that fall outside city limits, it's still largely a case of anything goes, says County Judge Jim Adolphus.

"The county, unlike cities, cannot make laws," Adolphus says. "We are strictly a child of the legislature."

Local officials say their hands were tied once the colonias were established. They attempted to go after developers, but most colonias are so old that any developers are either gone or so far removed from the picture as to be untouchable. Furthermore, many home buyers in the colonias receive "contracts for deed" that expressly hold them accountable for furnishing and maintaining utilities.

County officials assumed a role similar to that of a strict parent in dealing with Rio Brazos. They made some attempts at steering the community toward sound strategies and potential funding. At the same time, they were disciplinarians continually waving the threat of fines over residents to force compliance.

Their insistence that they were hamstrung to do more became something of a self-fulfilling prophesy, says Ernesto Abila, a resident of Four Corners, a colonia of some 350 mostly Hispanic and African-American households near Sugar Land. While officials lobbied hard for a much-vaunted expansion of U.S. 59 and Commissioners Court crammed its agendas with motions to approve plats and traffic control plans for high-end subdivisions, the problems in the colonias fermented.

"Everybody did what they considered in their minds good enough," Abila says.

Colonia residents have detected a pervasive note of apathy among some of their best-placed elected leaders. U.S. Representative Tom DeLay, the powerful Sugar Land Republican, visited the Fort Bend town of Kendleton in 1997 and learned of its faulty utilities. So he bagged $600,000 from a congressional appropriations bill for that town to upgrade services.

Abila, the president of the Four Corners Water/Sewer Supply Corporation, says he called DeLay's office, hoping to find help for other struggling people in his district.

"He's never really gotten back to me," Abila says. DeLay never got back to the Houston Press, either, on requests for his comment.

While many other officials seemed muted in their reaction to the problems, Charlie Howard wasn't among them. The outspoken Sugar Land Republican bristles at suggestions that area leaders like himself are unresponsive. Ironically, Howard trumpets his work with a group that drills water wells for poor people in Africa as proof that he has toiled on behalf of a wide range of ethnic groups.

However, he contends that the mess in Rio Brazos is mainly one of those residents' own making. Why all the clamor now for services, he wonders, when they should have known what they were getting into when they moved into their communities?

"Would you go buy a car that didn't have a motor in it if you needed to drive it to work?" he asks rhetorically. "Somewhere along the way individuals have to take responsibility themselves."

Representative Howard was chagrined to learn that his constituents preferred to seek government assistance to defray some of the costs for utilities. He says he recommended to Four Corners residents that they avoid the red tape of government aid and establish a utility district, just like upscale subdivisions do.

According to the Greater Fort Bend Economic Development Council, the average household income in the county last year was $71,681, well above state and national figures. Over the past decade, the population has swelled by more than 60 percent to an estimated 360,000 people. Ironically, that high income bracket has blocked the colonias from capitalizing on some grants for help.

As colonia residents, particularly in Four Corners, watch swank new subdivisions creep closer and closer to their homes, they cannot avoid the suspicion that some developers want them to vacate their land so it can be converted into even more high-dollar housing.

Michelle Martinez, on a recent visit to her grandparents' home in Four Corners, echoed the sentiments. "No matter which direction you look, there's new houses being built," she said. "The bad thing is they want to get these people to sell out."

Judge Adolphus calls the rumors "garbage."

Establishing water and sewer services in the colonias would go a long way toward allaying concerns. An inventor and engineer by trade, Abila says colonia residents are not looking for a handout but simply some assistance to establish basic, badly needed services.

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