Across the United States, historically underserved communities, such as in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas or southern California, lack regular access to clean drinking water and sewage treatment. These groups, typically Hispanic labor populations or Native American tribes, face barriers to achieving the same access to water as nearby municipalities. Irrigation districts often control water in rural areas, with minimal oversight regarding expanding service areas to include low-income, unincorporated communities.
This is the outcome of intentional exclusion that began during the major water development projects in the West between the early to mid-20th century. These groups were socially marginalized and thus considered “off the grid” because they were often not connected to municipal drinking water or wastewater systems. Their needs and values, including basic access for consumption and sanitation, were not addressed.
Colonias Communities in Texas. This routine and systematic disenfranchisement prevents many communities from incorporating their needs into larger governance frameworks that promote social and economic equity. In Texas, colonial are communities of impoverished Mexican-American residents living in rural or semi-rural areas along the Rio Grande Valley. The colonias are in part defined by their limited access to clean drinking water and poor sanitation services.
During the 1970s, colonias residents attempted to gain access to water provided through regional irrigation districts that were governed by local farmers. The underlying goal was to change the operations of the water control districts to include domestic use by electing colonias residents to the governing boards. The farmers opposed these changes and a legal battle reached the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Fonesca v. Hidalgo County Water Improvement District No. 2 et al., 496 F.2d 109 (5th Cir. 1974). Litigation over constitutional questions such as equal protection and due process ultimately became a battle over “how different sectors of society relate to water in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. To protect elite control of water governance, the water district…was […]