Flint, Michigan, still doesn’t have clean water. But cities like Flint are not an anomaly in America. An investigative report revealed last year that at least 33 other U.S. cities are facing high concentrations of lead in their water supplies, a situation that some officials have worked to conceal from the public.
Then there are some areas that get by with no water at all, relying on donations for something that most Americans often take for granted. This includes a number of Native American reservations and minority areas that have no regular access to clean drinking water, let alone “luxuries” like showers or car washes.
According to the Indian Health Service, a federal program for Native Americans and Alaska Natives, “Adequate sanitation facilities are lacking in approximately 145,000 American Indian and Alaska Native homes, or 36 percent.”
It’s a situation that residents of Sandbranch, Texas, a small town tucked inside of Dallas County, know all too well. One of the poorest areas in the county, it’s also the only one that remains unincorporated, making it ineligible to receive service from the city water treatment facility that lies just yards from the town. In 2000 an estimated 400 people called Sandbranch home; today fewer than 100 people reside there.
Those that remain aren’t giving up without a fight, namely for water, as its unincorporated status prevents it from receiving services from Dallas County. Even if the county were to absorb the town, no pipes were ever built there, making things like sewage service even more impossible without the funding needed to create it. For years residents relied on well water, but thanks to contamination that supply is long gone, forcing them to depend on water donations.
While some African-Americans left the Jim Crow-era South in favor of cities like Oakland, Chicago, Detroit and more, others flocked to rural areas, lured by the promise of affordable land on the outskirts of major cities. Known for its lax building codes, Texas in particular was ripe for promises that never came to fruition, as families began carving out lives in areas developers soon forgot about, making a way out of nothing as they waited for essential services, like water, that also never came. In fact, pipes were never even built in many of these communities.
Often known as “colonias” in Texas, the sprawling state is dotted with dozens of cities that were essentially built from the ground up, then left to function on their own. Legislation designed to provide relief for incorporated areas has been notoriously slow in Texas, and some officials, instead of pushing money into new infrastructure, would rather see residents relocate to cities that already have these services.
“You have families that live in third world conditions in the state of Texas with a modern city just miles away,” Veronica Escobar, a former county judge in El Paso who also served as county chief executive, told The Atlantic.
Now running for congress, she added, “The state of Texas has essentially put counties in charge of health, safety and welfare, at the same time they give us very limited authority.”
The result? American communities like Sandbranch that operate without building codes, clean water or any oversight that would allow them to turn the struggling town around. And as 83-year-old Sandbranch resident Ivory Hall recently lamented to The Guardian, many see it as yet another example of the environmental racism that has longed plagued states like Texas.
During an interview Hall told the reporter, “We don’t have water here and you know why? The pigment of my skin. If I were white like you, I bet they’d have water down here.”
Established in 1878 by Reverend Allen Hawthorne, a former enslaved Black person, at its peak the small community reached 500 residents, a number that’s fallen lower and lower over the years. Poverty and race have collided, with 87 percent of the population composed of Black residents, and all of them reporting income levels lower than the national poverty line.
For three decades, Sandbranch residents have intensified their resolve to keep their town intact, fighting for access to fresh water that flows freely to cities like Dallas, one of the wealthiest in the state. Located inside of the Trinity River floodplain, in 1991 Dallas cited flood concerns and high costs for its decision not to annex Sandbranch and bring it into the fold. Several years later Dallas County would offer assistance for residents, 36 families in total, to simply relocate, but those that did so were given little in compensation for the mortgage-free homes they gave up, and others refuse to do so altogether.
Still, many residents remain loyal to the town built by former enslaved Africans and sustained by a tight-knit community that includes the well-loved Mount Zion Baptist Church. They’ve become resourceful, finding ways to burn their own waste as they continue a decades-old fight to obtain basic rights like running water.
Responding to similar calls to relocate residents, a move that would effectively end Sandbranch, in 2016 the North Dallas Gazette reported that pastor and community activist Eugene Keahy said, “Dallas County’s buyout in 2005 was a disaster for the community, now, this is even worse. Who wants the government coming into their home, announcing it’s unfit, then kicking you out? Some of these residents are well into their senior years and have lived their entire lives in Sandbranch.”
For residents like Keahey, Sandbranch is more than a town, it’s a community. One that was literally built from the ground up and passed down by those that fought hard for a better life following the traumas of slavery.