In Texas, Water Infrastructure Problems Mean More Bottled Water — and Extra Costs

Hundreds of thousands of low-income Texans lack access to public water utilities, relying on expensive water delivery. Many more are skeptical of their water quality and opt for bottled water — a huge expense for people already living in poverty.

A customer stocks up on bottled water in a Sam’s Club during a heat wave on July 21, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Brandon Bell / Getty Images)

Maria Martinez has spent the last fourteen years of her life living and raising her family in Hueco Tanks, an unincorporated community outside El Paso without access to potable water. Every two weeks for years, Martinez has had water delivered by hauler to fill a three-thousand gallon tank on her property. Each delivery costs ninety dollars — more if the delivery comes on a weekend — in addition to the hundreds of dollars she’s spent each month on bottled water to drink.

“I grew up in Juarez and I was able to drink the water from the faucet there, so moving into the US and not being able to drink the water from the faucet was very uncomfortable,” Martinez told Jacobin in Spanish.

Martinez, like a number of other Texans living close to the border, has for years been forced to buy bottled water for lack of an alternative. But according to a recent survey, a significant number of Texans also choose to drink bottled water because they don’t like how their water tastes or smells.

In February, the nonprofit organization Texas Water Trade commissioned a survey of mainly black, Hispanic, and low-income Texans living near the border and in the Houston and Dallas–Fort Worth metro areas about their confidence in their drinking water. The survey, which was first reported on by the Texas Tribune, wasn’t trying to ascertain whether respondents’ drinking water actually is or is not safe. It instead asked whether respondents felt their drinking water was safe — delving into questions not only about water quality, but also about communities’ trust in government more broadly.

The results of the survey were clear: non-white and lower-income Texans by and large do not trust their water. Sixty-one percent of respondents to the survey said that they do not think their water is safe to drink, with 43 percent reporting that the smell of their water is unacceptable and 56 reporting the same about the taste of their water.

The survey captures several issues. Some Texans lack potable water. Other Texans have potable water, but don’t trust it. Even in places serviced by major public water utilities, some people smell, look at, or drink their water, decide something is not right, and tell their neighbors and friends to stay away from it.

Their suspicions may or may not be well-founded. There are legitimate reasons to be concerned about the state of Texas’s water infrastructure, though the water distributed by public water utilities is regularly tested and may be safe to drink even if it smells or tastes off. But the survey suggests that the people who don’t trust their water in Texas are people who have disproportionate reason not to trust authorities with their health — and the result is that more than half of respondents to the survey reported that they primarily drink bottled water despite the fact that bottled water is some two thousand times more expensive than tap water.

For Ivonne Santiago, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Texas at El Paso, the drinking-water issues are a clear example of the compounding costs of poverty and discrimination. “If we paid for our tap water what we paid for bottled water, we’d be paying thousands of dollars a month on our water bill,” said Santiago. “Using bottled water is not the best option for many reasons.” Contrary to popular belief, bottled water isn’t always safer to drink than tap water. While bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), tap water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and doesn’t sit in plastic prior to consumption. Bottled water is also liable to contain the same “forever chemicals” that have been found in tap water.

Water Infrastructure Issues

The state of Texas’s water infrastructure does not, as a whole, inspire confidence.

A 2017 study found that 71 percent of the schools tested in Texas had lead in their drinking water, and, this year, the state received a failing grade in a report released earlier on states’ commitment to getting lead out of the drinking water in their schools. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has been accused of negligence in its oversight of a failed water utility in a majority-Hispanic West Texas town, the state’s reservoirs are quickly losing capacity, and an alarming number of line breaks and boil water notices have repeatedly left thousands of Texans without drinkable water in the last several years. The state’s long-term water situation is daunting. Add to that the stream of headlines out of majority non-white, working-class communities across the country about unsafe drinking water, and skepticism seems natural.

But not everyone in Texas even has access to publicly provided drinking water. Along the border, hundreds of thousands of residents live in unincorporated, substandard housing developments known as colonias that are not served by public water utilities. Residents of colonias often haul water to their homes, which comes with an array of challenges.

“The water when it’s delivered by a certified hauler should comply with safe drinking water standards,” Santiago said. “But then it’s in a tank, these communities are rural communities in the middle of the desert, and there’s dust and particles and the danger of algae growth in your tank that can hide the growth of many water-borne pathogens. And people know this. So what do they do? They over-chlorinate.”

Santiago said people have reported developing scalp and skin issues after bathing in the chlorinated tank water. Sometimes, if people don’t have the time or money to go out and buy bottled water, they drink the chlorinated water and get sick.

It’s a vicious cycle, with the colonias a particularly pernicious example of how powerful interests in the state have taken advantage of some of its most vulnerable residents. As the colonias were being constructed, developers told people that they should buy their homes immediately before utilities were installed and the prices went up — and then never installed the utilities. Many homes lack electricity and sewage systems along with basic water infrastructure, and the Republicans who run the state have not shown any great interest in helping to remedy the issues: Governor Greg Abbott vetoed funding to help the colonias in 2017, while a legislative committee meant to address the needs of the colonias was still unformed as of October.

Martinez said that she has never seen a candidate for major public office appear in her community, even though she and many of her neighbors vote and pay taxes. The cumulative effect has been one of material deprivation and a clear sense that the state is not invested in the safety of her or her community members. “I feel impotent,” she said.

Political Will

For the most part, Santiago said, Texas’s public water utilities provide safe and reliable drinking water. But the fact that not all of the state’s residents have access to public water utilities is a matter of political will in a state that has the world’s ninth-largest economy. “It’s funny, we’ve taken men to the moon, and we cannot extend the pipe?” Santiago said. “It’s a matter of priorities.”

While the drinking-water issues are most pronounced in the colonias and in areas of the Rio Grande Valley served by smaller public water utilities, the fact that a substantial number of residents in the Houston and Dallas–Fort Worth areas are also concerned about the quality of their drinking water suggests that there are more intractable issues with the state’s relationship with its residents and its water supply that simply increasing access.

There have, Vida Water CEO Jim Drees noted, been signs of progress in recent months. Martinez had a water filter installed in her home, and groups like Vida Water are aiming to begin offering relatively low-cost filtration services in underserved communities this summer. The newly formed Texas House Water Caucus, meanwhile, announced that it will aim to “prioritize water” during the ongoing legislative session.

“There is an understanding of the necessity of water for life and economic development in Texas, as well as the need for water infrastructure that hasn’t received enough funding,” Drees said. “So I think the takeaway for public policy folks is, particularly in these smaller, rural, disadvantaged, underserved communities, there is a higher need for investment and care.”

That kind of investment and care could make a major difference in the lives of people who are often laboring with fine margins to support themselves and their communities. What would Martinez do with her savings if she didn’t have to spend twice as much as her neighbors in El Paso on water each month?

“I would buy more groceries,” she said.