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Lines & Shadows

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

"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.

"From there, she started taking over," he says.

Details of her background remain sketchy, and Reid seems to like it that way. She calls herself first and foremost an American, then a Democrat, then a Christian. Around her neck she wears a pendant that says, "# 1 Mom." Reid says she's a lobbyist. That label seems to be over-reaching, since she registered only once with the state and listed no clients.

The woman also says she's a court mediator and consultant. Reid offers scant information about those lines of work. But there's no doubt that she was a fresh Rio Brazos volunteer embraced by Hernandez in her crusade.

"They've waited far too long. They've been promised a lot of things over the years. It's unconscionable," says Reid. "It's an emergency for this community, which was almost without any voice until recently."

Once she had Hernandez's trust, Reid made herself that voice -- a very harsh voice that regularly jolted other allies of the colonia's efforts. A mere three weeks after the Ozarka event, Parras and the Environmental Justice Clinic received a curt letter signed by Hernandez. It asked for a full accounting of all grant money the clinic had received.

A similar letter targeted Fort Bend Interfaith Council. Along with the request for an accounting was an allegation that they owed Hernandez $75,000 for teaching citizenship classes to immigrants. She'd actually volunteered for those duties.

Olivo, the former Fort Bend Interfaith leader, called the allegations against the organization "ridiculous."

Reid systematically sniped away at virtually everybody who had been working on the issue. Local politicians, USDA officials and nonprofit organizations became the target of shrill accusations and stern rebukes.

"Ms. Reid was just cutting everybody's throat," Parras says. "We personally believe that she saw a situation here where she could move her agenda forward and be the white goddess who came into a Hispanic community and got them out of their miseries and troubles."

Reid makes no apologies for her pugnacious style.

"I'm kind of like a surgeon -- I don't dally," she says. Asked if her approach alienates people, she answers, "No one burns bridges that are useful."  

The way Reid sees it, too many people have been working too long on the water issue with too little to show for it.She denies that she's looking for grandeur through her actions in the colonia controversies. "I don't need this publicity, be it positive or negative.I'd just as soon be in the background, way at the end of the wings, and let somebody else be at the curtain call," Reid claims.

Why would Hernandez condone the assaults on former allies? Parras believes that left high and dry by the indifference of some leaders, Hernandez no longer sees that there are others who are legitimately trying to help.

Those baffled by Reid's hardball tactics felt they had an answer for her motives in March, when her lanky, fresh-faced son Nathan came out this year as a candidate against Charlie Howard for state representative. Some believe that her heavy advocacy for the colonias represented a good campaign issue for her boy.

"I think her deal was more political," Meyers says.

Reid says her interest in Rio Brazos far predates any plans her son had to run for office.

Hernandez got firmly behind Nathan Reid's campaign, writing letters and press releases that praised the good work of the young man in words that many took to be ghostwritten by his mother. As the election neared in late October, Hernandez circulated a pair of press releases.

One dispatch trumpeted, "Scandal in Fort Bend County" and announced that community members had asked the FBI to investigate past and current county executives, U.S. Department of Agriculture staffers, Olivo, Howard and the Fort Bend Democratic chairwoman. The broadside accused them of interfering with residents' efforts to get a utility system.

The second media release was headlined "Emergency Health Crisis in Fort Bend County." It thanked Nathan Reid for his assistance to the community.

Even as relations deteriorated with the Rio Brazos activist, the county forged ahead with the plan to create a water district. Earlier this year officials circulated petitions to authorize the county to go ahead with the proposal. Savvy enough to see that the plan might be their best shot for water and sewer services, Hernandez rallied Rio Brazos residents to sign up. She wanted to keep all her options open.

By June she delivered the requisite signatures to Judge Adolphus. But when August came and no new action had been taken formally to advance the project, Hernandez exploded.

She and Reid turned to the highest levels of government. "We feel that President Clinton and [Secretary of Agriculture] Dan Glickman and you sir are ready to assist our community," they wrote to a USDA official in Washington.

When Commissioner James Patterson recommended that Hernandez be on the proposed water district board, she declined in a letter to commissioners that concluded, "May your conscience be pricked daily as you drink and bathe in your homes with potable water and sewer."

By this time, county officials were growing annoyed with the escalating saber rattling from the Rio Brazos crusaders. "The only thing the county can do is ignore the inflammatory rhetoric of a few and proceed with the direction we are taking," Adolphus says. "It's very tempting to say, "The hell with it.' We're not doing that, because we think it's something that needs to be resolved."

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.

"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?"

This is her next-door neighbor, a renter who declines to give his name.

"Don't listen to him," Hernandez advises, doing nothing to head off a spat. The two get into it.

"You don't scare me! You don't scare me!" she growls.

"She's just a bunch of bull, that's all," the man mutters before storming off.

Controversy seems to follow Hernandez everywhere these days. "If I have to go to Washington, I will go," she vows. "And if I have to march to Austin with a jackass and buckets, I will go. But I will get the water. Believe me."

That unshakable faith has inspired many residents. Others believe the issues have grown too complex, that the county should take charge. Since her battle began, officials and residents in other Fort Bend colonias have put politics aside and achieved impressive results.  

Fresno-Arcola formed a freshwater district and passed a $39 million bond election this year for water and sewer services. Residents of the Fifth Street colonia between Missouri City and Stafford worked with Fort Bend Interfaith Council and netted $3 million in federal, state and local funds for utilities. Now many in the neighborhood are connected to services for the first time.

Even if the problems over Four Corners and Rio Brazos are quickly worked out, utilities would not arrive until almost 2003.

Most people in those two colonias agree that politics no longer should be an issue. Nick Sanchez, a 68-year-old retired construction worker, ponders the question of whether he would support Hernandez or the county. He shrugs his shoulders and replies in Spanish: "I prefer that we get water and sewer."


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