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, colonias 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 narrowly defined…they could exclude colonias from its territory and refrain from providing domestic water to excluded communities.” What was originally a question of exclusion from a local water governance structure for colonias residents soon devolved into a question over social exclusion and water access inequity.

Failed Litigation, Water Access Denied

In Fonesca, the district boards successfully argued that the colonias should be able to use water for irrigation only and not municipal use, and denied colonias as worthy of treated drinking water because they had no “historical claim to water.” Texas state law allowed the water control districts to govern themselves as special purpose districts for irrigation only. State law also prevented municipalities from regulating development in unincorporated areas. Thus, municipal systems were not compelled to offer universal coverage. Likewise, private water supply corporations were allowed to have board representatives from existing ratepayers only.

Loose regulation (or non-regulation) in Texas state and municipal law failed to adequately include colonias, creating a loop of exclusion in local water governance schemes that fed further social exclusion. Water governance in the Rio Grande Valley was built around providing service to a narrow band of user groups without regard to equity and could not capture a wider range of needs for disenfranchised groups. 

Success in Coachella Valley

In contrast, more recent attempts to expand the representation and inclusion of community needs in irrigation districts have been successful in southern California. The Coachella Valley is home to expansive and luxurious golf course developments, date tree farms, and at least 10,000 residents living in mobile home parks. These residents are mostly farm laborers who lack the means for more secure housing, and are thus subject to poor water quality, sanitation and spotty electrical hookups. Many residents are forced to buy bottled water because their taps are unsafe. Some of the mobile home communities have only recently received grants to connect to Coachella City Water, the nearby municipal system.

Residents are now represented on the local irrigation district board. In 2014, Castulo Estrada was elected to the Coachella Valley Water District, the largest provider of drinking water in the valley. Estrada was the first Latino elected to the board, benefiting from a new structure that designated representatives from five different sub-regions, instead of at-large districts. After joining the board, Estrada created the Disadvantaged Communities Infrastructure Task Force, which brings together other water board representatives, community and nonprofit leaders to leverage funding for infrastructure upgrades. Incorporation of all user groups into water governance schemes, even at the local irrigation district level, demonstrates an acknowledgement of their concerns, interests, and values toward water use.

Inclusive Governance Structures

To adequately address the needs of historically marginalized groups, governance structures that manage water resources should include a broader range of stakeholders, values, and desired outcomes. As currently constructed, institutions such as irrigation district boards are not adequately equipped to address the social equity of those without a “historical claim to water.” Further, these impoverished communities lack the political representation to systematically affect governance beyond the local level.

Historic disenfranchisement, such as in the Rio Grande Valley, can be rectified by increasing representation in local water governance. However, these local agencies still face economic hurdles in delivering adequate drinking water and sanitation services. Promoting equal access to water among disadvantaged communities is a necessary policy and social goal. An effective governance structure can promote social equity while simultaneously improving local management of drinking water and wastewater.