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Tainted water flowed to these Texans’ homes for three years. No one told them.

A playa (flood plain) borders a neighborhood in South Midland on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024. For three years, residents from the neighborhood outside city limits consumed well water laced with traces of arsenic. The well can be seen in the bottom right of the flood plain.
A playa — or flood plain — borders a neighborhood in South Midland on Feb. 1. For three years, residents from the neighborhood outside city limits consumed well water laced with traces of arsenic. The well can be seen in the bottom right of the flood plain. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

MIDLAND COUNTY — Leslie Borrego lives in a modest house south of the city limits, built 24 years ago by her late husband Raúl, who died unexpectedly from an aneurysm four years ago.

The walls, decorated with framed portraits of Raúl, have provided shelter to Borrego and her growing family of six kids and three grandchildren.

Like thousands of other Hispanic families who live in unincorporated parts of the state, often referred to as colonias, Borrego’s family water source is a nearby well managed by a third party. And for the last three years, the water piped into her home, as well as her neighbors, contained traces of arsenic and other chemicals above the mandated state standards, according to records from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ.

Borrego and other residents say they never knew.

The well’s former operator, Ramón González, never alerted them, residents say. Neither did the state agency supervising him. The commission said it did its part by issuing a $1,300 fine in 2013, along with a court order, which is currently pending at the state's attorney general's office, a spokesperson said. The agency said that under the Safe Water Drinking Act, individuals who operate a water system serving households have up to a year to issue a notice if the contamination doesn’t pose an immediate risk.

“He never told us anything,” Borrego said.

González resigned as operator in 2023. The Texas Tribune has been unable to reach him.

Water quality, supply and infrastructure are tests for many communities in Texas — especially as the state’s population rapidly expands. The challenge is acute in the state’s rural and unincorporated areas, like Borrego’s Midland County community.

Texas is on the cusp of releasing $1 billion to finance desperately needed water projects in all corners of the state in one of the largest investments since 2013, which voters approved last November. It’s unclear whether these funds will reach the 9,300 residents living in the Permian Basin’s colonias, who for decades have relied on a system that has largely left their water source to rot.

The neighborhood consists of a handful of blocks. As is the case with many unincorporated communities in West Texas, the area has no paved roads — run-down properties neighbor brick homes, trailer homes outnumber concrete ones, and dogs run in packs, chasing out strangers. A mountain of discarded shingles on the horizon blocks the sunsets from view. One gravel road was in such disarray that neighbors on the block pooled $5,000 to buy enough caliche, a material made of gravel and sand, to cover the holes and make it drivable.

Problems with the well predate González. The state has recorded almost 600 violations since 1997 — a staggering number considering a well about 20 miles north used by a trailer park has had no violations since 1996. Another four miles west has had only 46 during the same time period.

Regulators do not keep an average number of violations per well. However, a 2022 report showed that just 4% of water systems were not compliant that year.

A court appointed González to maintain the water well in 2005. Receivers “are generally only appointed when a water system is at risk of abandonment,” a spokesperson for the state’s environmental quality department said. As the Texas-appointed operator of the water well, González charged a $35 monthly fee to each home, which he collected in cash and money orders, according to multiple residents in the neighborhood. He was responsible for maintaining the water well and ensuring it was compliant with state standards, including regular monitoring and treatment.

The well was a wreck when Lisa King and her company took over management of the well in late 2022. King is co-owner of New Water System, a Houston-based company that manages water wells in various states of disrepair.

“We have extensive work to do after six years of neglect,” she said. “It was the Wild West, trying to figure out what was happening with the system.”

Records show the well’s water from 2020 through 2023 had chemical levels that exceeded state standards. And in some cases, the levels were unknown due to a lack of testing.

In 2020, multiple chemicals, including arsenic, atrazine and benzopyrene were present in the water. Ingesting these chemicals can lead to cancer and issues related to the heart and fertility. The same records show the consumers had not been notified that the water was contaminated.

In 2021, González had not tested whether the water contained other chemicals, including chlorine, fluoride, lead and copper — which is mandated by state law. That year, the water had arsenic above the acceptable limit.

In 2022, the operator again did not test for a majority of chemicals. Still, the report said the water contained arsenic, but no one except the operator knew.

The TCEQ said it issued the standard violations to the operator in each case. When the commission identifies serious or continuing violations, regulators can begin an enforcement process, which includes financial penalties of up to $25,000 and a lawsuit. Between 2011 and 2019, regulators sent four notices. On those four occasions, González said he brought the well to compliance, according to records by the regulators.

The state said that González, as the manager of a public water system, was required to notify his customers of each violation and sign a letter certifying to the state he did. The TCEQ could not immediately confirm whether he notified the residents.

Information about contamination of the well did not reach residents, the majority of whom are Hispanic and whose primary language is Spanish.

Marcela Salcido moved to the neighborhood from Kermit, a nearby West Texas town, in 2008 after a divorce. The 63-year-old lives by herself in a house her sister left her before moving to Mexico. Over the years, Salcedo has expanded the house and added rooms for her two sons, their spouses and kids.

Salcido paid her $35 well bill on time every month. She rarely complained when the water stopped running for days or even weeks at a time. She keeps jugs of water in the living room and cases of water bottles she replenishes weekly. She didn’t know the water from her faucets and shower had arsenic or other chemicals. And it wasn’t until March 2024 that Salcido learned the water system was under new management. In the months since the new owners took over, they have not contacted Salcido.

“It’s an ugly thing,” Salcido said in Spanish of when she learned the water contained contaminants. “Sometimes I drank that water.”

King and her husband said they had been gradually introducing themselves to the neighborhood as the new operators. The previous operator kept no records of the residents, so they went door by door. “It took us years just to find names,” King said.

The state does not track the number of residents who get water from wells and other non-municipal water lines.

Texas colonias have long been neglected. Residents live there often because the land is inexpensive and there are few regulations to build homes. It comes with a cost: There is little infrastructure propping up these communities, which typically line the state’s border with Mexico.

Midland County Commissioner Luis Sánchez identified 12 neighborhoods in the county that met the criteria for being recognized as colonias by the state.

A study prepared by Sánchez estimates that rehabilitating the water system across the 12,000 acres of the Midland colonias would cost $10 million. A sewer service, the study said, would cost the county $16 million.

Other organizations are working to establish water lines in colonias.

Kathryn Lucero, director of DigDeep's Colonias Water Project, got running water to a community along the U.S.-Mexico border and aims to do the same for five additional colonias.

Lucero said that for these projects to succeed, the residents need to be informed, engaged and involved in improving the infrastructure. The organization works with leaders in each community to understand their issues.

Midland’s colonia residents were surprised to learn — from a Texas Tribune reporter — that their water contained chemicals.

The information long confirmed what Borrego believed to be true, that the water running through her pipes was dangerous and undrinkable. The person who operated the well when she and her husband settled in Midland warned them not to drink the water.

In the years since the water has felt oily and has smelled of chlorine, Borrego said.

On a windy Monday afternoon in March, Borrego pushed the door twice into the frame, ensuring she had sealed it shut. She draped the windows. Windy days fill the interior with the dust from the gravel road. While her favorite novela played in the background, she looked at a bill the new water operators had sent her: $754, a charge that includes three months’ worth of use — the new fee is $85 per month — late fees, a residential and receivership fee.

King, who said her company had spent more than $10,000 on the initial work of restoring the well, said the rate is one way the company can continue to finance repairs and upgrades for it, which had been drilled in 1986. That’s without accounting for the meters they plan to install in each household.

Repairs are ongoing. A little over a year after King took over, the well is yet to be in full compliance with state standards.

“It’s been a challenge to let them understand what was causing them to have water out of compliance,” King said. “I feel for them.”

In the years she’s lived there, Borrego’s water has never run consistently. Sometimes, when she turns on the faucet, she gets that whiff of chlorine, which she figures is what happens when the water is being cleaned, but she can’t be too sure. No one tells her.

“We need to pay whatever they say,” Borrego said. “We need the water.”


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