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May 23, 2002
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Natural Resources Committee Visits Brownsville

The Senate Natural Resources Committee traveled to Brownsville on May 23, 2002, to examine water problems in the undeveloped areas called colonias and the area's ability to respond to natural disasters.

Colonias are unincorporated settlements that generally have no water, sewer service or drainage. When such an area is hit by a natural disaster like a hurricane or other storm, the results can be catastrophic for those who live there. Anywhere from a dozen to several thousand lower income residents live in each of these areas. There are hundreds of these settlements scattered along the Texas-Mexico border.

Invited testimony began with the committee examining the Colonia Water and Wastewater Self-Help Grant Program. Senate Bill 312 was designed to help improve living conditions in the colonias. Ignacio Madera from the Texas Water Development Board described how his agency is funding projects in the colonias, which enable the residents to help build their own water and wastewater systems. The Secretary of State's office is also administering the program and Yvette Sanchez from that office reported on those efforts. She said that since residents actively participate in the work, they gain pride in their communities and the state saves money.

Andrew Robertson with Border Waterworks, an organization that helps colonia residents organize their own water and wastewater projects, said it averages $950 dollars per household to upgrade water services. He also said that the committee should realize that generally colonia residents are not in the U.S. illegally, but are legitimate residents whose health is endangered by bad water supplies. Colonia residents who testified described their problems with water before the self-help program and the civic pride that comes from upgrading their communities.

Randall Winston, City of Weslaco engineer, described the reservations that he had about colonia residents being able to help build their own water and wastewater systems, but he added that the projects assisted by Border Waterworks have all been satisfactorily completed. Sylvia Handy, Hidalgo County Commissioner, testified that before water systems are upgraded, residents literally have to bathe their children in dirty water from drainage canals. Jerry Jungles from the Galleria Rotary Club described how his organization is working with local residents. Jungles said the Rotary Clubs across the country have a history of working on water problems and described how his group got involved in the Rio Grande Valley's programs.

From there, the committee moved on to hearing testimony on natural disaster preparedness. Pat McMacken, President of the Emergency Management Association of Texas, he testified that after World Trade Center attack last year, his group is concerned with helping to prevent attacks on the state's infrastructure. Diane Calhoun, Chair of the Texas Floodplain Management Association, recommended ways to make the state's disaster response more efficient.

Jo Ann Howard, formerly of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, told the members that Texas traditionally has more damage from natural disasters than other states, a rate that is five times the national average. Greg Rothe of the San Antonio River Authority, spoke on the part flood control plays in the overall emergency management plan. Captain Hector Ramos of the Texas Department of Public Safety described that agency's role during a disaster said how it would handle evacuations in South Texas.

Public testimony followed. Juan Ortiz, Emergency Management Coordinator for the city of Corpus Christi, reminded the committee that the first response to any disaster is local and encouraged them to support planning and training on that level.

The committee will be issuing a report on these and other issues to the 78th Legislature.

The Senate Natural Resources Committee is chaired by Senator J.E. "Buster" Brown. Other senators on the committee include vice chairman Robert Duncan, Gonzalo Barrientos, David Bernsen, Teel Bivins, Craig Estes and Eddie Lucio. The committee recessed subject to call of the chair.

Session video and all other Senate webcast recordings can be accessed from the Senate website's Audio/Video Archive.