McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Contaminated drinking water in colonias is drawing new attention to what many say is an old problem for the substandard neighborhoods found on the Southwest border with Mexico.

On Thursday, a faith-based nonprofit teamed up with a major university to announce a comprehensive two-year study of water quality in two colonias in Hidalgo County, Texas.

This comes as 10 lawmakers in Congress this week sent a letter to a federal agency requesting $100 million in additional funds in Fiscal Year 2024 to expand the EPA’s U.S.-Mexico Border Water Infrastructure Program (BWIP), which helps to develop infrastructure projects on both sides of the border to improve water conditions.

“Our southern border states are home to 2,000 colonias, many of which lack basic infrastructure
like water and wastewater services among others. In Mexico, urbanization, geography and
inadequate wastewater infrastructure have led to untreated sewage, trash and sediment routinely flowing into the U.S. through shared waterways. This program is designed to aid those
communities, on both sides of the border,” read the letter sent Tuesday to the Office of Management and Budget from U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from South Texas.

Also signing the letter were these border lawmakers:

  • U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas
  • U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico
  • U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Arizona
  • U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas
  • U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas
  • U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas
  • U.S. Rep. Monica De La Cruz, R-Texas
  • U.S. Rep. Juan Ciscomani, R-Arizona
  • U.S. Rep. Gabe Vasquez, D-New Mexico

“Clean water doesn’t necessarily mean clean water in the colonias,” Jaime Wesolowski, president and CEO of Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas Inc., told Border Report on Thursday. “A lot of the colonias have water that they’re using as clean water, but they are laced with arsenic, lead, uranium and other contaminants.”

Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas and Texas A&M University are conducting an aggressive two-year study of colonia water by testing samples for a half dozen suspected main contaminants. The colonias are located in the rural San Carlos community, east of the town of Edinburg; and near the town of Progreso, officials said.

Jaime Wesolowski is president and CEO of Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas Inc. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Methodist Healthcare is funding the project, but Texas A&M University School of Public Health will oversee all the data collection and research, Wesolowski said after a panel discussion held about the new project at a Methodist church in McAllen.

“Once we have this data I believe it will force legislators who have a conscious to do something about this,” Wesolowski said. “Bring clean safe water to the colonias along the Rio Grande Valley.”

The study will include local high school students procuring water samples that are to be analyzed, as well as interviews with area residents and leaders. Regular updates and town hall meetings, held in English and Spanish, also will be part of the study, they said.

The final data, however, won’t be ready in time for this current 88th Texas Legislature, which began earlier this month. They are targeting the 2025 Legislature, Wesolowski said.

“We’ll have facts to bring to the community to educate our legislators on. And we hope that our local legislators here in the Rio Grande Valley can then partner with us and take those facts to the legislature in the 2025 session and try to get some funding from the state to come here and do what is the right thing to do. We can’t have families thinking they’re using clean water that are laced with arsenic,” Wesolowski told Border Report.

Arsenic is naturally found in the South Texas soil, and in the soil in northern Mexican border towns, A&M scientists said. But it is widely known that higher levels are found in colonias, which currently have unregulated water supplies, and often rely on private well water.

Arsenic can cause cancer, heart disease, and cognitive and other health disorders, including developmental delays in children, they said.

This has been going on for decades, the panelists said, adding that they hope these findings will support the widely held theories about contaminated drinking water in these communities and will force a change in Texas laws to make tougher regulations and improve water quality conditions.

Arsenic is naturally found in the soil of South Texas, but can cause cognitive and health disorders. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

“We are doing our best to give the information back and let them use it in whatever form they want to help leverage this for improved conditions for healthier Texans,” said Garett Sansom, of Texas A&M, who will be leading the research.

The lawmakers who signed the letter to OMB this week wrote that clean water on the border must be taken more seriously by lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to help border residents.

Currently, over 600 colonias in Tijuana and Rosarito, Mexico, south of San Diego, are running out of water due to drought and poor infrastructure, and are asking the San Diego County Water Authority for help.

“We must prioritize funding for BWIP to meet the needs of colonia residents who lack basic services, and to meet the broader needs of the border, including first-time water hook-ups and sewage infrastructure,” Cuellar said.

To date, 137 projects have so far been financed using U.S.-Mexico Border Water Infrastructure Program funds, including 69 in the United States and 68 Mexico, Cuellar said.