Sandbranch is a small, poor, largely African American community just outside Dallas but its residents have to rely on charitable donations of bottled water
23 November 2017 | Oliver Milman| The Guardian
“It’s a sweltering Saturday in October and Pastor Eugene Keahey is becoming agitated. His flock live in a Texas town that hasn’t had running water in 30 years and the donated bottled water they rely upon is in short supply.
“We got six cases of water from a donor but two have already gone in the last hour,” said Keahey, eyeing the line of people waiting for their weekly handout of food and water from the Mount Zion Baptist church in Sandbranch, a largely African American community that lies 20 minutes and a world away from Dallas.
Recent hurricanes in Texas and Florida have diverted the attention of non-profits away from the sisyphean struggle endured in Sandbranch. “I’m going to have to come up with a plan, get on Facebook and beg or borrow water from somewhere,” said Keahey.
“People come for donations from outside the town and it’s difficult to say, ‘No you can’t get water because you’ve got running water at home.’ My test is to say ‘What do you do with the bottled water?’ If they just say they drink it, I have to say no because people here shower, brush their teeth with it, everything.”
Keahey, a stout man with a greying beard and half-moon glasses, rubbed his face. “This is a full-time job. It’s not part time. Water is like gold here.”
Sandbranch has no water pipes, sewerage, trash collection or street lights. In an added dash of irony, the sprawling Dallas Southside water treatment plant is situated about 10 yards from Sandbranch, its rusting barbed wire fence running along the northern boundary of the town.
The slow, dry decay of Sandbranch is startling but little known even among the Dallasites who neighbor this crumbling enclave that extends off a quiet stretch of looping highway to the south of the metropolis. The population once stood at more than 500, dwindled to less than 100 by 2010 but has anecdotally rebounded with some newcomers attracted by the cheap land.
“Everyone around us has water but not here,” said Detra Newhouse, a 46-year-old who grew up in Sandbranch with her grandparents. “For a while people didn’t even bathe. Some still don’t. There’s a man who lives nearby and I don’t think he’s had a proper bath in 20 years.
“We are a dirty little secret no one wants to talk about. I was listening to MSNBC talk about Flint, Michigan, the other day and what is happening there is unconscionable. But I thought, ‘Yeah, and what about us? What about us?’”
Many residents are at a loss as to why they have been forgotten. Officially, Sandbranch’s woes stem from being small, unincorporated and situated on a floodplain area that restricts new development.
But the fact that low-income minority areas in the US are often blighted by environmental problems, whether it’s tainted water or toxic air from nearby industrial plants, is well understood here. Sandbranch is a jarring example of environmental injustices that have pockmarked the US for decades.
“We don’t have water here and you know why?” asked Ivory Hall, a spry 83-year-old black man who deftly slaps my arm as he makes his point. “The pigment of my skin. If I were white like you I bet they’d have water down here.”
Newhouse easily draws upon fonder Sandbranch memories; of collecting eggs from the chickens at the back of the house, hanging upside down in trees, getting penny candies from the corner store, playing in the then unpaved streets with other children until the dark finally forced them indoors.
There was a well at her grandparent’s house and the children would press their mouths to the nozzle of the pump and gleefully guzzle the water. “It was so refreshing and it was so cool,” Newhouse said. “I had the best childhood ever.”
By the mid-1980s, Newhouse had moved in with her parents in Dallas and noticed a difference in the well water when she visited Sandbranch. The liquid was brown, laced with sand. It emitted a nauseating smell.
“I got used to being able to fill up a cup of water and drink it but then I’d go to Sandbranch and have to stop and think, ‘I can’t do that – I could die,’” she said.
Later, as an adult, Newhouse’s job required trips to India, where it became clear she had diverged from the American norm. “Places like Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore – you wouldn’t dare drink the water there,” she said. “I thought, ‘Dang, we are living like India. I’m living like an Indian woman.’”
Sandbranch is an unincorporated town – an area not serviced by a municipality – that Dallas County dates back to 1940, although in previous decades properties were established by African Americans lured by cheap land and the opportunity to elude the various indignities inflicted by the white bastion of Dallas.
Water pipes were never installed and, like some other unincorporated places, the lack of trash collection means residents have to surreptitiously burn their garbage or take it to relatives in the city. These were tolerable quirks when Sandbranch had a supply of clean groundwater but the wells are now tainted and now either rot or are sparingly used for washing a car or, for those prepared to risk it, a bracing shower.
Testing in the 1980s and early 1990s confirmed bacterial contamination of the water. The Sandbranch populace points the finger at gravel mining that has scarred the fringes of the town. Dallas County can’t be sure of the culprit but suggests the widespread keeping of hogs, now banned, created rivers of waste that poisoned the water table.
Whatever the cause, the pollution forced residents to trek several miles to buy bottled water or fill up jugs at relatives’ houses. As poverty has tightened its grip on Sandbranch – the average monthly income is now $720 – most people cannot afford to buy an endless supply of bottled water and now lean heavily on the church’s donations.
Richard Shivers, a white 59-year-old man who walks with a slight limp, bought a parcel of land last year for a few thousand dollars and moved his trailer to live there with his wife Rachel Garcia and a menagerie of animals, including at least a dozen dogs and cats, a couple of pigs, five donkeys and a brood of chickens.
Shivers pays a neighbor $50 a month to use his pump to fill five barrels with water, which he transports back in a sagging van, found next to two other dilapidated vehicles on the land, a former hog farm. He said he not only showers in the water, but also drinks it.
“Some people don’t understand how we do it, but I know how to survive,” he said, scooping fetid water from one of the barrels with a grimy hand and offering it to me. “It’s clean. Taste it. I’m serious – taste it.” The Guardian declines the offer.
Mount Zion Baptist church is a modest but tidy place of worship with a pitched roof and one of the few functional toilets in Sandbranch. It has a 325-gallon water tank outside for donated water and on Saturdays is transformed into a sort of community triage center, distributing foodstuffs while volunteer nurses from the Texas Woman’s University gather around a fold-out table to offer free blood pressure checks.
“It’s a unique environment,” said Keahey, who gave up a rather more comfortable pastorship in Dallas to grapple with Sandbranch’s stubborn maladies. His wife was raised in Flint. “We are the water crisis family,” he said with a chuckle. “You don’t really expect to see these living conditions next to one of America’s wealthiest cities.”
Sandbranch has never been financially viable enough for the city of Dallas to subsume and provide water and, in any case, the town sits on a floodplain which, since the 1970s, has pinioned it with federal rules that limit development.
The oldest houses have been grandfathered but no new properties are allowed unless they can be elevated on stilts above the flood risk level, to around 10ft. Sandbranch doesn’t have the heft of city services, and the freewheeling nature of being unincorporated is nullified by the federal floodplain rules that limit its growth and therefore tax base. It’s a bind that acted as a slowly tightening ligature around the town for decades.
“We looked at it and thought something could be done but it’s a Rubik’s cube and we haven’t been able to line up all the colors on one side,” said Rick Loessberg, who has been planning director at Dallas County for the past 20 years.
The county provides roads, signage and law enforcement but doesn’t provide water infrastructure. Loessberg said the county looked at creating a new water utility for Sandbranch the 1990s but no one in the town wanted to run it. The well water can’t be cleansed of its pollution. And the county doesn’t see its role as paying for bottled water. Sandbranch’s decline may now be irreversible.
“We tried to get them water but with the cost involved and a declining population was it good policy to spend millions of public dollars for 88 people?” Loessberg said. “With the community in the floodplain it’s unlikely there will be new development so there will be no new houses to share the cost of it.
“Whenever you see poverty in a country as prosperous as ours, it’s disconcerting. We like to think we are better than that. I wish we could wave a magic wand, but it’s tricky. It’s complicated.”
Wandering around Sandbranch feels a little like stepping into a historical re-enactment with a few modern flourishes. About half of the town’s houses have been torn down or left to ruin, either due to the intervention of Fema, the federal disaster agency, or a Dallas County initiative where residents were offered a small amount of money to leave.
The former five and dime store, once a mobile home, has tilted on to an angle with a gaping maw on one side where the rot has set in. The corner store has also gone, as well as the community center, now wreathed in weeds.
The lost properties have left behind vacant spaces filled with knots of weeds, grass and trash next to the remaining structures, which are mainly ageing wood-framed houses daubed in white that can only be patched up, not materially improved, under the Fema floodplain rules.
The verdant vegetation is slowly enveloping the town, adding a bucolic feel to the decay. There is little noise apart from the continual crackle of gunshots from a firing range that was placed right next to Sandbranch.
Keahey has provided an injection of optimism since becoming Sandbranch’s pastor in 2013. He has spearheaded a group that has pulled together the US Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Agriculture, with a view to obtaining grants to put in pipes and then buying water from the city of Dallas.
Should the byzantine bureaucracy work in his favor, Keahey believes Sandbranch’s long drought could end as early as next year. In total it may cost $6m, perhaps more.
“It’s realistic, it’s a real thing, we are excited,” he said. “If we get the permits and all that, it could happen next year. Once people get water to the lots, they will come back.”
Others are more skeptical. “We wish them the best but it’s a very complicated process,” said Loessberg. “It might even end up cheaper buying bottled water than paying a monthly water bill to the city. It’ll be difficult. You see where the long-term population trend is. You can see which way it’s going.”
It may be practical for the county for Sandbranch simply to cease, for its remaining residents to find somewhere else to live where there are jobs and running water and a Tuesday night garbage collection on illuminated streets. But communities put down hardy roots that often weather the most extreme adversity.
“If we get water I’ll be down here like a shot because why should I pay a mortgage where I am in Dallas when I have a house here?” said Newhouse. “I think the county is waiting for everyone to die out here so they can redevelop all of this, so they can dig for their precious gravel. I don’t think that will happen. All we are asking for is a water bill.”
It’s Sunday and the good people of Sandbranch are neatly dressed and ambling into the church. Two dozen souls fan themselves in the pews as the gospel choir finds its voice and Keahey provides some spiritual perspective.
“We don’t have creature comforts and amenities here but we have your love, God,” he bellows into a microphone, prompting several people to stand and shout, “Say it pastor!” The choir launches into I Will Trust in the Lord and does a job that wouldn’t disgrace Aretha Franklin.
There’s no shortage of takers for the precious liquid. The two gallons go to Alvin Wayne, who escorts me and the water to his weatherboard house, shuffling on his cane. “Is that all you got?” Wayne, who has completely run out of water, asked.
The latest scheme to lay water pipes leaves Wayne naturally skeptical. He has lived in Sandbranch since 1963 and he’s heard it all before. But cynicism doesn’t seem to be able to flourish here, in this friendly forgotten corner of Texas where everyone waves at you as you pass by.
“I’ve heard about that plan,” Wayne said. “I hope I live long enough to see it happen.”