College of Engineering Students Provide Access to Water in Colonias
Anahy Diaz | November 2, 2020
College of Engineering students at The University of Texas at El Paso are working to provide water access to economically disadvantaged communities through rainwater harvesting systems.
The U.S.-Mexico border, which runs approximately 2,000 miles long, is home to ‘colonias,’ unincorporated communities that lack basic services such as piped water, wastewater services, electricity and paving. Most of the residents are elderly, on a low ﬁxed income, and haul water 2-3 times a week in portable tanks, leading to health-related risks associated with the process of hauling.
“These communities have limited resources and guidance to address such issues, and face public health risks most commonly related to clean and reliable water access,” said Nayeli Holguin, graduate student in the Department of Civil Engineering and research assistant for the Center for Environmental Resource Management (CERM).
For the past three years, CERM and Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW) UTEP chapter, have been working to change this by creating sustainable access to water.
CERM and ESW proposed “Water Matters,” a project led by William Hargrove, Ph.D., CERM former director. The project works with rain-harvesting systems as an immediate solution for the community to reduce hauling and associated health impacts. Rainwater harvesting allows the colonias residents to conserve water and reduce roof runoff that contributes to localized flooding.
“It is important to be able to help colonias residents to have a higher quality of life by improving their water management through rainwater harvesting,” Holguin said. “Less hauling for the residents means that there is a lower possibility for injury if they haul the water themselves and creates a greater piece of mind for the residents knowing that it is less likely that they run out of water.”
In 2017, CERM and ESW students installed rain-harvesting systems in two La Pampas homes, a colonia near Presidio, Texas. According to Holguin, they estimate the life of the system to be 10 to 50 years.
This project has been possible to special funding, including grants from The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Region 6. Funding through the North American Development Board (NADB) Project #1015, and Border 2020.
This past summer, the team returned to Las Pampas to install another system in a home, all while following the necessary safety precautions amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, CERM and ESW installed rainwater harvesting systems in two other colonias, Cochran Mobile Home Park and Montana Vista.
Holguin said the rainwater harvesting systems have all yielded great responses from the communities, as students have periodically checked on the residents to collect responses.
“The work that Ms. Holguin and her team are doing to improve the quality of life in the colonias through water harvesting perfectly aligns with the department of civil engineering goal to increase its engagement with the community, and at the same time provide learning opportunities to our students through impactful service projects,” Chair of the Department of Civil Engineering at UTEP, Carlos Ferregut, Ph.D., said.
The team has seen a good response from the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB), who awarded the group with the 2017 Texas Rain Catcher Award for its work in the Presidio colonia.
“The next steps are to apply to more grants to continue to help more families across Texas,” Holguin said. “We will need to identify other communities who need help and conduct other investigations on their conditions.”
Holguin and the rest of the team are looking to help homes in Hueco Tanks. Holguin said they were able to conduct interviews with the residents before the pandemic and hope to start there once additional funding is secured.
“Service learning is an excellent way for students to gain a very valuable practical experience by applying what they learn in their courses and research activities to solve engineering problems that benefit our community,” Ferregut said. “I am thankful to CERM and ESW for making this type of opportunities available to our students.”