In Texas Border Towns, a ‘Dangerous Combination’ of Heat and Water Cutoffs


On a blistering morning this week, the kitchen sink in Kathy Quilatan’s house was delivering only sputtering water. With temperatures climbing into triple digits most afternoons these days, she knew exactly what she had to do to keep her two young children, ages 2 and 6, from overheating. She gathered several plastic containers and set out on a quest for water.

The neighbors could not help: Problem-plagued delivery systems have meant that entire neighborhoods like Ms. Quilatan’s along the Texas border have gone without water for hours or even days during the brutal heat that has gripped much of the Southwest this summer.

“Not having water under this extreme heat is a dangerous combination,” Ms. Quilatan said. “Can you believe that this is life in America?”

For families like the Quilatans who live in colonias, the impoverished settlements outside established cities that have always existed somewhat apart from the rest of Texas, just the ability to cool off has become a painful reminder of the social divide prevalent in border communities.

Even in Texas, where people are accustomed to sweltering weather, the unrelenting triple-digit temperatures of the past few weeks have taken a toll, especially in low-income Latino neighborhoods like this one, where people cannot afford to turn on air-conditioners. In some parts of the state, the prolonged heat wave has led to a spike in heat-related fatalities and emergency room visits.

The disparity is more visible in the colonias, mostly unincorporated neighborhoods that often lack such basic services as running water, sewer systems, paved roads and streetlights.

“We take for granted the public light and drainage because we live in the city, while folks in colonias do not have those services. But now with the water, that’s just pushing it,” said Marco Lopez, an activist with La Union del Pueblo Unido, an organization that seeks to improve living conditions in poor neighborhoods. “A lot of the times when we think of lack of access to water we think of third world countries, not here in South Texas.”

The excessive heat in Texas this summer has been deadly in Texas. The state has recorded at least 36 heat-related deaths so far this year, but officials warned that the figure was likely to rise, as it could take weeks to release a cause of death. In the border city of Laredo, 10 people died from heat-related problems between June 15 and July 3.

Hospitals in the Rio Grande Valley, which has many colonias, have seen a surge of patients seeking relief from the heat. Since June, at least 166 patients have sought help in emergency rooms run by the South Texas Health System, a 70 percent increase from the same seven-week period a year ago, said Tom Castañeda, a spokesman for the system.

Doctors have been urging people to limit their time exposed to the heat and stay hydrated.

But Ms. Quilatan said she did not always have those options.

The colonias — the word is Spanish for rural neighborhoods — have existed since the 1950s, when developers created unincorporated subdivisions with little to no infrastructure. Low-cost houses and plots of land there were sold to low-income, mostly Latino buyers, many of them recent immigrants. Today, an estimated 840,000 people live in colonias, in housing ranging from modern-looking suburban houses to partially built shacks.

Three years ago, Ms. Quilatan and her family moved to a colonia called Pueblo de Palmas, not far from McAllen. At first, moving from the nearby city of Mission to a colonia seemed like an opportunity to gain a toehold on the real estate ladder. The family of four pays about $500 in monthly rent, with an option to buy the house from the landlord.

Her house, while modest, is a well-maintained two-bedroom decorated with exposed bricks. She knows she is luckier than most. Some of the houses near her lack a roof or walls. Water pressure has always been spotty, she said, but the problems became more acute with the arrival of summer this year.

The water went out in mid-June and did not return until mid-July, she said. She quickly rallied her neighbors to pack meetings with the water district, Agua Special Utility District, to complain about the lack of water, to no avail. They were not given answers, she said. When the water did come back on, residents were advised to boil it before using it. “You could not trust the water when we needed it the most, if we had it at all,” she said.

Representatives with the utility district did not respond to requests for comment, but a notice on the district’s website said a boil advisory was required by the state as a result of “reduced distribution system pressure.”

On the day this week when she noticed her pipes struggling to produce water, Ms. Quilatan headed to her parents’ house, which was less than two miles away and had running water. She pulled the containers out of her trunk and filled them with water from a garden hose. She said she would use the water to bathe her children before they tried to sleep that night.

By the time she returned home, the thermometer read 103 degrees. She hauled the heavy water containers back out of the trunk. “I don’t even have to boil it,” she said. “I can just leave it outside, and it’ll be ready by the time I need it.”

Her father, Rafael Quilatan, 48, said it pained him to see his daughter struggle with such a basic necessity.

“You drive around the block, and you see the carwashes using all of this water, but there is no water for a mother and her two children?” he said. “How is that possible? It’s like the colonias are part of a different country.”

For all of the hardships, colonias do offer some low-income people an opportunity to buy a plot of land and build a house over time, often moving in before it is completed.

Noemi Hernandez, 56, paid $22,500 in 2001 for a lot in a small colonia called Salida del Sol. Her house has now grown to two stories but remains unfinished, though it has cost her only about $80,000, far below the average price of $260,000 for a home in Hidalgo County. “There is no way I would have been able to buy a house in the city for that price,” Ms. Hernandez said.

She struggles to keep her home cool as the sun heats the thick concrete walls. She has been keeping her doors and windows open except in her bedroom, where she has a small air-conditioner.

“We try not to turn it on all the time,” she said. Her monthly electric bill, she said, jumps to $380 from $250 in the summer.

Low water pressure and boil notices are common problems in her colonia, too. “I’m afraid to take a shower or even splash water on my face,” she said. “We were told not to let water get into our eyes.”

Over the years, local, state and federal officials have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in public works projects, but the needs sometimes seem overwhelming.

“I’m trying to do everything that I can do,” said Everardo Villarreal, a county commissioner who represents the colonias where Ms. Quilatan and Ms. Hernandez live. “It takes unity. It takes a lot of us together to be able to help.”

Ms. Quilatan said neighbors tried to help one another.

After dropping off the water containers that day at her house, she went to check on a neighbor, Brenda Salazar.

Did she have water flowing from the faucets today? Yes, for now, Ms. Salazar said. She pointed at two containers full of water she was keeping near her front door, just in case. She had been without water for several weeks this summer.

“It’s too hot not to have water,” she said. “But nobody cares.”

Ms. Quilatan nodded, feeling no need to reply.

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