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Border & Immigration

Colonias Bear The Heaviest Burden When Rain Falls In The Rio Grande Valley

Colonias Flooding - Maria Garza
Veronica G. Cardenas
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Maria Garza said recent heavy rains flooded her neighborhood in Palmview, Texas, but the water should soon subside.

At Maria Garza’s residence, fat mosquitoes fed and multiplied around the front yard’s inundated playset. Like other colonia residents, her house doesn't connect to the city’s sewage system. Instead, it uses a septic tank, and Garza suspected that it was the source of the foamy, brown water festering in her yard. The flooding around her home has been there for three days, and she had to wade down her driveway in rain boots.

“And this is every time it rains. Hurricane, tropical storms, or any rain that’s more than three or four days in a row, this is what happens,” Garza said in Spanish, nodding towards the front yard.

Her family planned on leaving for the weekend, which they always do after heavy rainfall because the stagnant water makes the property unbearable. Also, one of her sons is asthmatic, and their home’s current state exacerbates his condition. For people living in these colonias, any substantial rainfall in the Rio Grande Valley is a menace.

Colonias Flooding - Inundated Playset
Veronica G. Cardenas
Maria Garza’s flooded property is seen in Palmview, Texas on Saturday, July 10, 2021. Lopez says that they have been flooded for the last three days and that they expect for the water to come down in the next two days if it doesn’t rain. Veronica G. Cardenas for Texas Public Radio

Flood control is more complex than people realize, according to Jude Benavides, a lower Rio Grande Valley flooding expert and associate professor at UTRGV’s School of Earth, Environmental, and Marine Sciences.

One of the biggest challenges — and possibly why Garza's Colonia Ramirez Subdivision No. 4 struggles so much with flooding — is rapid urban development. Hidalgo County is expanding quickly, and drainage improvements and developments can't keep up.

As more buildings and parking lots are built and highways expand, there’s less space to divert water. Not only does this physically limit the number of drainage canals that can be built, but it also causes water to move into the existing drainage systems faster. Once they reach capacity, they’re left with water that can’t flow towards the large drainage systems that empty into the Gulf of Mexico.

Colonias bear the brunt of this issue because they exist in rural areas that aren’t built for such rapid growth and that have the worst infrastructures in the Valley — if they have any at all. Garza’s house is near a rapidly developing area, and it’s likely that the drainage system that was built a few years ago wasn’t enough to redirect the volume of water then and much less now.

Even infrastructure that isn’t directly related to drainage, like Garza’s septic tank, is a major health risk. Additionally, any live wires that may come in contact with the stagnant water create a fatal risk.

The effects are also socioeconomic. When people can’t leave their house or their cars stop working, they can’t make it to work or school. The constant flooding makes it near impossible to get flooding insurance, and so they have to pay someone to pump out the water or repair damages. But funds are sparse, and cities need to keep up with the rapid growth, so sacrifices are made, usually at the colonias’ expense.

Colonias Flooding - Getting into house
Veronica G. Cardenas
Sonia Lopez shows how she has to park her vehicle close to her porch in order to not get her feet wet at her home in Palmview, Texas on Saturday, July 10, 2021. Lopez says she has been flooded for three days. Verónica G. Cárdenas for Texas Public Radio

“You're in a Catch-22. If we don't develop, we don't get more money,” Benavides said.

Poorer cities in the Valley have to develop first to be able to keep up with the costs but they cut corners along the way. And many of these corners happen to be stormwater drainage systems in colonias.

“It is a very common problem in say urban or rural areas that are being subsumed or overtaken by cities, which happens to be the colonials in this case,” Benavides explained.

Colonias were born out of poverty and exploitation all along the Texas-Mexico border. They started as large plots of unincorporated land that were later sold to the poor immigrant workers that flocked to the border when maquiladoras brought an influx of jobs. Many of these properties were sold under the guise they would soon have the necessary infrastructure, such as sewage systems. This was often a lie, and people were left fending for themselves, finding their own sources of safe drinking water and using outhouses instead of toilets.

The term “colonias” was legally recognized in 1987 by the Texas State Legislature to support the Texas Water Development Board in providing water and wastewater services to areas that fit the colonia criteria. Since then, the state government has succeeded in allocating funds to many other issues that plague colonias, such as installing streetlights. Over time, legislators implemented additional measures to land transactions to prevent colonias from forming, and many have shed the designation. But new ones still pop up.

Garza said some parts of her property held up to 10 inches of stagnant water but the City of Palmview has yet to come and pump it out. Her colonia is now within city limits.

She pays city taxes which maintain the paved streets, drinkable water, streetlights and even gives them a drainage system. Four years ago, the city created the system by digging trenches and installing culverts that were meant to reroute water away from her neighborhood’s properties. But they've instead acted as receptacles for rainwater, retaining it for days on end. Now, for Garza and her neighbors, the flooding seems worse than ever.

Colonias Flooding - Flooded Neighborhood
Veronica G. Cardenas
The outside of a residence is seen flooded in Palmview, Texas on Saturday, July 10, 2021. The residents have been flooded for the last three days and say they expect for the water to come down in two more days without rain. Verónica G. Cárdenas for Texas Public Radio

Colonia Ramirez Subdivision No. 4 is one of Hidalgo County’s 925 colonias. According to the state of Texas’ Colonias database, this one doesn’t flood after rainfall nor is it in a floodplain. Nevertheless, flooding is an undeniable reality.

The database is a remnant of the last comprehensive colonia record-keeping initiative. The Texas Legislature established the program in 2006 to coordinate and strategize colonia assistance across agencies to better serve residents and their needs. It also used colors — green, yellow, red — to categorize colonias' development, based on a variety of factors, including whether or not they flood.

Gov. Greg Abbott cut the program in 2017. Now, funds set up to help with colonias are routed through their respective agencies but collaboration is no longer a requirement, nor is record-keeping. That makes identifying and prioritizing issues plaguing colonias and facilitating their solutions even more challenging.

This obstacle is amplified on the local level. Drainage jurisdictions are constantly changing as the area grows. Palmview is struggling to keep up with recently annexed land and scrambling to create new infrastructure, said Eric Flores, Palmview’s city attorney.

There’s money at federal, state and private levels to help out colonias. For example, the Texas Water Development Board administers flood assistance FEMA grants but they’re not available to individuals. The city of Palmview recently received a bond for drainage infrastructure improvement.

“We are trying our best as the city grows, to implement the necessary infrastructure for these colonias. But of course, our priority is the incorporated city limits,” Flores said. “Eventually we will get to those newly annexed areas as you implement those necessary drainage improvements.”

Colonias Flooding - Maria Garza Speaking
Veronica G. Cardenas
Maria Garza explains her situation about her property being flooded during an interview outside of her home in Palmview, Texas on Saturday, July 10, 2021. Lopez says that they have been flooded for the last three days and that they expect for the water to come down in the next two days if it doesn’t rain. Veronica G. Cardenas for Texas Public Radio

There is little Garza can do except keep calling the city and work with La Union del Pueblo Entero to advocate for herself and her fellow flooding victims. The City of Palmview hasn’t come to pump the water out of her property, and it’s getting dirtier and smellier.

Garza’s tiny pump barely makes a difference, and she lives on a slight decline, so by pumping she’s really only bringing over water from her neighbors. She’s thought about building up around her house, so the water doesn’t continue to collect on her property. But it goes against her principles because it would just end up making the flooding on her neighbor’s property worse.

“That’s not the point,” she said. “The city should be here fixing this.”

But she stays hopeful and pleading.

“I’m gonna give the city the benefit of the doubt. They say they want to fix it so I say, 'okay fix it,' ” she says.”But we need action.”

TPR's requests for on the record comment from the Hidalgo County Drainage District No.1 were declined. Requests for comment from the District general manager and from the Palmview city manager were not returned.

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