This report is part of a project on drinking water contamination in the United States produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.
YUMA, Ariz. – Nestor Alaniz didn’t get a permit to build a well in his mother’s backyard, and he didn’t get it inspected.
In fact, he didn’t even know how to dig a well. He learned by watching tutorials on YouTube while his brother, a construction worker, helped him drill the 25-foot-deep hole.
They built the well after the old one dried up for the fourth time. Their mother, who lives in a “colonia” – an unincorporated community – of about 400 residents outside of Yuma, Arizona had gone without water to her home for a year.
They didn’t have the $5,000 to $10,000 to pay a certified well driller, so they spent $1,200 to buy their own equipment and build it themselves.
County officials said they’re concerned when residents build wells without required permits. They know there’s often not enough separation between the wells and septic tanks, which can increase risk of contamination. And they fear some of the wells do not go deep enough. However, officials said their hands are tied because the legal process to get things done is too complicated.
All along the U.S.-Mexico border, about 840,000 mostly low-income, immigrant Latinos have settled in colonias – cheap plots of land outside city limits without basic infrastructure such as water and sewage systems, electricity and paved roads.
A News21 analysis of census data indicates that across the United States, the average income in predominantly Latino unincorporated areas is 40 percent lower than the average income in predominantly white unincorporated areas, making it harder for these communities to deal with water quality issues. Colonias exemplify some of these problems.
As of 2015, an estimated 30 percent of colonia residents didn’t have access to safe, clean drinking water, according to the Rural Community Assistance Partnership, a national nonprofit group.
News21 visited colonias along the border – in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas – and examined how residents deal with water contamination and why it’s so difficult to improve their condition.
Colonias often face complicated government bureaucracy and limited budgets that make it hard to secure funds to fix problems. Residents are often poor, with little education, and some are undocumented. And since many residents say they are not civically engaged, they feel invisible to their elected officials.
Colonia residents also have to face the public perception that they chose to settle in their communities knowing they lacked services.
“There are attitudes out there that these people moved into these subdivisions on their own, consciously, and they should not be expecting the state to bail them out,” said Texas state Sen. Jose Rodriguez, a Democrat from El Paso. “The fact that (colonias) exist in other parts of the border along the U.S. reflects some similar attitudes.”