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.

In the lengthy Rio Brazos search for fresh water, residents regularly cast hopeful eyes at Rosenberg. When they make the one-mile drive across the river into the small city, the colonia dwellers are greeted by a sign that boasts, "Superior public water system." For Hortencia Hernandez and her neighbors, that water would taste like honey.

The easiest solution to their utilities conundrum would be annexation by Rosenberg, since the city then would have to provide services. But Rosenberg officials say such a move would be economically unsound. However, Mayor Joe Gurecky and others have signaled a willingness to sell water and sewer services once the colonia establishes the proper connections.

Officials peg the combined cost of establishing utilities for Rio Brazos and Four Corners at $10 million to $15 million. Only a heavy injection of government assistance will make these works possible, says Meyers.

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

"I'm one of those people who don't think that government ought to fund everything, but I happen to be working on this project," says the self-avowed conservative Republican commissioner. "There's no other way these people are going to get water and sewer."

A U.S. Department of Agriculture rural utilities program, which offers millions of dollars for water and sewer systems in low-income areas, appears to be the best hope. The program provides a combination of grants and loans for rural utilities and gives users of the services 40 years to pay back the debt, mostly through monthly bills.

But the application process is complex and has gotten ugly.

Four Corners began the process in 1998. The county pitched in for costly engineering and environmental studies. Rio Brazos residents then approached the USDA for funding of their own, prompting local agency officials to recommend that the two communities apply jointly.

Four Corners and Rio Brazos are at least ten miles apart, and thus require separate infrastructure and water-and-sewage treatment sources. But the USDA maintained that a shared project would reduce duplication and ensure a sufficient number of customers to make the undertaking financially feasible.

Four Corners had to wait for Rio Brazos to complete an engineering report and apply. Abila believes the effect of the recommendation, which he says was more like an ultimatum, was to hold the project hostage.

Nevertheless, new opportunities emerged. By early last year the colonias' quest seemed to be on the verge of a breakthrough. Olivo, who had provided help as a leader of the Interfaith Council, was now a state representative.

She was the Texas House sponsor of legislation that strengthened the hand of counties to help unincorporated areas create and fund utility systems. The law gives counties the ability to issue revenue bonds for water and sewer projects.

With more freedom to act, Fort Bend commissioners proposed a water district for Four Corners and Rio Brazos. Such districts are overseen by a board of directors drawn from the community and usually are financed through bills paid by utility users. Unlike private, nonprofit water supply corporations, they can levy taxes if needed.

That option seemed like a final unified step out of the sewage and tainted water for the colonias. Hernandez and the county looked like new partners, but the effort suddenly spiraled into another contentious direction with the arrival of a stranger into the Hernandez camp.

"The whole thing," Adolphus says, "got political something awful."

Don't even try to figure me out," Helen Reid warns. "Let's put it this way: I like a challenge, and I like to help my fellow man."

She was the one searching for help, however, when she first met Hernandez last year. In 1998 Reid, her mother and son rented Sugar Land property that had plenty of pasture for the majestic Arabian horses that her son likes to breed. Their landlord was none other than state Representative Charlie Howard.

The Reid clan soon began lodging complaints. They said they were being exposed to hydrogen sulfide and other "noxious vapors" from an adjacent oil-and-gas operation. They commenced a bitter battle with the state to get tighter regulation of that energy business. By early 1999 they chided Texas Railroad Commissioner Tony Garza for lax oversight. In one letter, they asked if his office was "prepared to offer our family a reasonable monetary settlement" for their suffering.

Howard received complaints alleging that he had used their electricity in his cattle ranching, had stored his boat in the garage and had subjected them to foul well water. Helen Reid even contended that the tainted water caused the death of her mother.

In one of a series of charged letters, 26-year-old Nathan Reid wrote to the state representative, "Charlie real men do not try to intimidate or threaten people. Having said that, I do appreciate the fact that you removed the boat today."

The Reids enlisted the help of Juan Parras of TSU's Environmental Justice Clinic. He says that one day Helen Reid seemed particularly distraught over the hydrogen sulfide from the nearby gas operation. So he told her that if she really wanted to see something depressing, she should visit Rio Brazos. Parras escorted her there in August 1999, and she was "flabbergasted," he recalls.

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