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 judge, who came into office in 1999, refers to Hernandez as a good leader gone badly astray.

"For the last 12 months, she's stopped working within the system," Adolphus says ruefully. Helen Reid "has come in and convinced Hortencia that with her connections to the federal government and the state of Texas she can suddenly cause pure water to flow from the taps and effluent to flow to treatment facilities with no cost."

While animosity increased, the Reids still managed to score points among the colonias' activists. In October three officials from the USDA's Washington headquarters visited Fort Bend and met with residents of Rio Brazos, Four Corners and the county. The Reids had convinced them to come down and meet directly with the communities.

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

"Any one of our officials could have picked up the phone like Nathan Reid did and spent hours and hours telling [federal officials] about our problems," Abila says.

The visit was intended to help move the process forward, says Gary Morgan, an acting assistant administrator for the federal agency. It came during an uncertain time, just one month after colonia leaders had accused local USDA staffers of causing project delays and demanded that they "cease and desist" from any further involvement. The charges stemmed from the 1999 recommendation that Rio Brazos and Four Corners apply jointly for funds.

Morgan says he found no basis for the allegations. Nevertheless, he notified residents that agency staff from Louisiana now would be handling their case. He reassured community leaders that they could apply directly to the USDA for grants but that the agency prefers to fund entities with taxing authority, like the county's proposed water district.

"In cases where we have competing applications from nonprofits and public bodies, in most cases we prefer public bodies," he says. "It has more powers and abilities to generate income than just a water supply corporation or nonprofit."

If that was Morgan's cautious message, it somehow got lost in the translation. Hernandez came away from the meeting believing she was done with the county forever. Her euphoria only grew when she received a letter from Morgan on October 31. That correspondence concluded, "we look forward to providing appropriate financial assistance to the Cummings Road Water Supply Corporation."

She wrote that same day to commissioners rescinding the petition to create a freshwater supply district.

"You have delayed the process and have failed to keep your promises," she wrote. "[T]he "good old boy network' is no longer involved and has been replaced."

What Hernandez did not realize was that county officials received a letter from Morgan that was identical to hers -- advising that the USDA looked forward to providing funding to the county for the project.

Meyers criticizes the USDA for talking out of both sides of its mouth. On the one hand, the agency has consistently encouraged Rio Brazos and Four Corners to get together and create a water district with the help of the county. At the same time, officials have been meeting with the communities and encouraging them to apply on their own.

"The federal government is misleading those people because there's no way they'll get their deal done," Meyers says.

But USDA officials say that water supply corporations could function economically in Rio Brazos and Four Corners and are a "realistic" option.

The process now stands at a crossroads. Some residents of Four Corners and Rio Brazos will pursue plans to establish utilities through member-owned-and-operated water supply corporations. The county will move forward with its plan. The outcome will be determined by the residents themselves, who will be asked to sign on to one plan or the other.

For the county's project to advance, a majority will have to approve it in an upcoming referendum.

"What I'm really concerned about is there's going to be a time in the near future when people out there will vote on whether to accept the water board or reject it. If they reject it, I don't know what more we can do," Adolphus says.

Voters already had their say on Nathan Reid. Howard trounced him in the general election. The Reids' dispute over the rental property was more of a draw. Media reports said Howard wrote off about $7,000 in unpaid rent in exchange for the Reids' vacating the premises last year.

They moved on -- and into another fight over rent. The Reids reportedly staved off an eviction action by their latest landlord, although a court agreement calls for them to pay almost $8,000 in back rent and penalties and be gone from the premises by December 10.

In Rio Brazos, the gifts of bottled water are now in the past, a brief upbeat footnote in the continuing fight by Hortencia Hernandez.

On a recent overcast morning, she leads a pair of visitors through a backyard to show them the sewage-clogged ditch. The effluent is a greenish-brown, set against a backdrop of woods. Slight shifts in the breeze pack a pungent smell.

A thickset man, leaning against a junked car, glares at Hernandez. "You just come out here like a cop, like you own the place," he blurts out. "Could I ask you to move?"

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