For Las Lomitas, Water Means Work
In the midst of record-breaking drought, many Central Texans have dealt with mandated water restrictions. Some have even begun curbing their water consumption on their own. But as we find in our series “On Dry Land: The Story of Las Lomitas,” for one community in Travis County conserving water isn’t simply a drought issue, it’s a daily chore.
Driving up the dirt road to Norma Escalante’s trailer home, you pass a string of double-wides in varying states of disrepair. Her yard is dotted with odds and ends: an old tube TV, a rusted-over kitchen range perched beside the front door, and the skeleton of a burned-down trailer that’s been converted into a chicken coop.
Inside the home, a couple of sofas with red slipcovers flank a big-screen TV. The ceiling is cracked and stained from water leaks. Norma, her husband and their 9-year old son have lived here for five years.
“I like living out here, I do,” Norma said. “But not having water here, in the United States, in the city — it’s like ridiculous.”
Norma Escalante lives in a rural subdivision called Las Lomitas less than 10 miles southeast of downtown Austin. Many of the people in this neighborhood are low-income and speak only Spanish. They face challenges on a daily basis; the greatest is that not a single home here has running water.
Residents have been dealing with what they call their “water situation” since they bought the land from a developer 10 years ago. Most, like Norma and her husband, own their trailers, but they rent the land they sit on from a family member.
“You know, you probably go home and take a shower,” Norma said. “My husband tells me, ‘You can’t wash clothes because we don’t have enough water,’ so basically we have to wait until the weekend when he doesn’t work so that he can go get water, and I have to wait until the weekend to wash, ’cause I can’t wash during the week. Just imagine, having to worry about water every single day.”
Michael Escalante balances on the edge of his father’s truck bed holding a large water hose suspended from about six feet in the air. He’s filling the family’s 500-gallon portable water tank.
“We do this about twice a week, it sucks,” Michael says. “It’s like a waste of our time. Getting water all the time, it takes out of our day.”
Michael is Norma Escalante’s nephew. He’s a senior at Akins High School.
“My girlfriend knows I have to get water every weekend, she understands that,” he said. “But I don’t really tell my friends, ‘Oh, I can’t hang out right now, I have to get a load of water; I have to make sure there’s enough water to take a shower so I can go get cleaned up and then go to the party.’ I just don’t broadcast it. It’s not worth mentioning.”
The Escalantes are one of more than 30 families who live in Las Lomitas. They all haul their water from an old Travis County filling station.
The hose is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. The hours are shorter on Saturdays, but most can’t fill up except on the weekend.
They wait in line, sometimes 4 or 5 cars deep, and pay $1.25 for 500 gallons. Payment is on the honor system; they leave money in an envelope near the pump’s gate. For Michael and his father, it takes at least three trips to fill the tank for their house — anywhere between three and four hours.
“I have better stuff to do than just getting water in the morning,” Michael said. “So it’s a big pain. It’s a long process. It’s not like you can just go, come back, go, come back. It takes a while to load it and unload it and then waiting in line.”
Five hundred gallons of water weighs about a ton, so heavy that Victor Soto’s truck broke when he was carting water recently.
“I was kind of in a hurry, and then at that light over here, I stepped on it,” Soto said. “The whole thing slid off and crushed the tailgate, so, yeah, I don’t have a tailgate now.”
Soto opened the tank on the middle of the highway, cars whizzing by as he waited for all 500 gallons to drain out. He went home, repaired his truck and turned right around for another water run. He was back again this Saturday morning at 8.
“Sometimes I’ll get water for my sister also, and that takes four hours,” he said. “I mean, two hours for mine and two hours for her house. There’s people that will spend all day or until they close getting water for two or three houses.”
Right now there’s not another option for Las Lomitas.
Last October, Travis County told residents that the filling station would be shut down. Turns out all that water they lug back and forth isn’t technically drinkable, and the county saw the station as a liability.
Without that water, Las Lomitas residents would be high and dry.
So they formed a neighborhood association and lobbied the Travis County Commissioners Court to keep the tap open.
The county agreed, but it told the residents of Las Lomitas to figure out a better long-term solution, one that might finally pump water to their doorsteps.
“We just didn’t think it was going to be such a hassle,” Norma said. “You think about these issues and you think about Third World countries, you know? You think about poor, poor countries. And I’m like: look, you know we’re here and we don’t have water and who’s helping us? We’re trying to deal with this by ourselves.”
So the families of Las Lomitas have decided to help themselves. They’ve retained a lawyer and this week will put their case before the county commissioners.