Black and Hispanic Texans say they don’t trust the quality of their water

A portable water tank at a colonia at Las Pampas in Far West Texas on Oct. 21, 2014. Black and Hispanic Texans and those living in some of the states poorest neighborhoods said in a new survey they dont trust their drinking water. (Jennifer Whitney For The Texas Tribune, Jennifer Whitney For The Texas Tribune)

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Black and Hispanic people and those living in low-income Texas communities are highly concerned about the quality of their drinking water, a new survey shows.

Commissioned by the nonprofit organization Texas Water Trade, the survey included responses from 650 households in both rural border communities and urban areas across Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth. Among those surveyed, 61% responded that they do not think their water is safe to drink.

“We truly believe that Texas should be building a future in which all Texans have access to adequate and safe water,” said Sharlene Leurig, CEO of Texas Water Trade. “This survey gives us an indication that that is not the reality that low-income Texans believe they live within.”

The survey — which is not a scientific representative sample of the entire state but offers a window into some of the state’s most underserved communities — asked questions such as whether the taste and smell of water in respondents’ homes were acceptable. About 43% of respondents said the smell of their water isn’t acceptable, and more than half — 56% — said the taste is not acceptable. More than half of respondents reported they rely on bottled water as their primary source of drinking water.

[A boil-water notice in Houston made national news. In rural Texas, it’s a way of life.]

“It’s important for us to know that the people we surveyed don’t feel that their water is safe,” Leurig said. “It might be because their water actually is not safe to drink, and it could be other reasons it doesn’t meet standards that we all hold, like wanting water that tastes fresh and clean, and doesn’t have an odor or is discolored.”

The answers highlight a recurring problem in Texas, especially in rural communities that are financially strapped. Getting water — let alone safe water — to everyone in a quickly growing state is a challenge with aging, cracking infrastructure.

The full results of the survey will be shared publicly during a webinar at 10 a.m. Thursday. The survey was funded by a grant from the Lyda Hill Philanthropies to help Texas Water Trade launch a new effort to provide clean, affordable drinking water to underserved communities in Texas: Vida Water.

The state of Texas water is troubling to a growing number of local and state leaders and water advocacy groups. Last year, more than 3,000 boil-water notices were issued across Texas, reservoirs fell to 67% capacity amid a devastating drought and water-line breaks caused many communities to lose water.

As water infrastructure, supply and quality become a growing crisis in Texas, the state Legislature appears to be focusing on the issue. A new bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Rep. Tracy King, D-Batesville, has formed the Texas House Water Caucus to educate fellow state lawmakers about water security issues. And Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s list of 30 priority bills includes one to address Texas’ future water needs. The details of the bill are not yet available.

Texans most concerned about their water, the survey found, are in rural, unincorporated colonias — cheap plots of land outside city limits that are without basic infrastructure such as water and sewage systems, electricity and paved roads. Some 840,000 mostly low-income Latinos live in colonias along the U.S.-Mexico border, and more than 134,000 of those are not served by public water systems, waste treatment facilities or both, according to a 2015 report by the Rural Community Assistance Partnership.

Instead, these residents typically haul water by tank or truck, often from sites that are over a dozen miles away from their homes. The water is then stored in tanks for days or weeks before it is piped into homes, a practice that can create serious risk of water-borne illnesses. The stored water is also prone to contamination from dust or rainwater.

“Once the water is in the tank, it’s not pressurized and it’s not protected against contact with the air,” said Jim Drees, CEO of the Vida Water project. “What we learned is that there’s lots of stomach pain issues and digestive tract issues from the water they are drinking.”

Maria Martínez has experienced these issues firsthand. The 49-year-old has lived in a colonia in El Paso County for the last 15 years. She has historically not cooked with or drank tap water, which is delivered by truck twice a month. The one time she recalls drinking tap water at a neighbor’s home, she fell sick.

“We were used to having regular water in Ciudad Juárez where we lived, so it was very different to come here and not be able to trust our drinking water,” Martínez said in Spanish.

Recently, Martínez had a filter installed in her home, thanks to a project by students at the University of Texas at El Paso. The system is expected to save her hundreds of dollars a year that she would have spent on bottled water for cooking and drinking.

Vida Water, which is slated to begin offering an affordable filtration service this summer, will focus on border communities like Martinez’s that are not connected to public water systems. The company is registered as a public benefit corporation and will offer filtration services without high upfront costs.

“There’s no company that finds it profitable to come into these communities and provide low-cost filtration units,” said Ivonne Santiago, an engineering professor at UT-El Paso who has worked in El Paso colonias for more than a decade. “So this is really a dream come true.”

While the highest level of concern was in colonias, 28% of respondents in the Dallas-Fort Worth area expressed concerns over their water.

According to Mary Gugliuzza, spokesperson for the Fort Worth Water Department, 86% of Fort Worth water customers are satisfied or very satisfied with their water, according to a recent survey. And the public water system does not currently have any water violations.

But Gugliuzza added that historically underserved communities do have greater distrust of their water. A national study found that while 75% of white Americans trust their tap water, only about 65% of Black and Hispanic Americans trust their water.

While the Texas Water Trade survey focuses on certain areas in Texas, water quality is a problem all over the state. Carlos Rubinstein, a former chair of the Texas Water Development Board, has seen the same concerns in the Panhandle and the Coastal Bend.

“Not all Texans have the same ability to access clean water and appropriate wastewater treatment that is of equal capacity and quality as every other Texan,” Rubinstein said.

Rubinstein said doubts about water quality can come from multiple sources — some people may not know where their water comes from, some may read about concerning water issues in other areas and some might be experiencing the issues firsthand.

The common expectation in homes or businesses is that it should be as simple as turning on a faucet and water flows out in return. That’s not always the case, though, and Rubinstein said that can amplify doubt.

“When you’re in a disadvantaged community, you recognize that you either don’t have adequate water pressure or you have intermittent service, or you don’t have service at all,” Rubinstein said. “It’s easy then to question the type of investment that has gone into treatment work, that is supposed to provide high-quality water.”

Alexa Ura contributed reporting.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at El Paso and Lyda Hill Philanthropies have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Clarification, : A previous version of this article reported that Maria Martínez has water delivered once a month. She has water delivered twice a month.

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