After living under a boil water notice for nearly 5 years, Toyah residents still struggle to access safe drinking water

TCEQ had found many problems at the town’s water treatment plant, but local leaders assure residents the water is safe to drink. Some, however, are pushing back on that narrative.

By Mitch Borden, Marfa Public RadioMarch 17, 2023 10:28 am, ,

From Marfa Public Radio:

This story was reported and produced in collaboration with Martha Pskowski, a reporter at Inside Climate News. This is the first story in a three-part series on the town of Toyah and the water issues that have plagued the community for years.

On the edge of the West Texas oil fields, just west of Pecos, lies the small town of Toyah — a community that’s been long defined by its water.

Its name most likely comes from an Apache word for water. Its best years were a century ago when it was a water stop for the railroad.

Now, Toyah has a population of less than 100. Water for residents travels about 35 miles through a pipeline from a distant mountain spring. As idyllic as that may sound, the city’s actually been under a boil water notice for almost five years.

Long-time resident Elida ‘Angel’ Machuca has vivid memories of how the water tasted when she was growing up.

“I remember the water being really clear and really clean. Almost sweet like — it was just good,” she reminisced. “Now, it comes out really yellow at times… or like red clay dirty mud.”

It was June of 2018 when Angel first realized there were major water issues. Back then, she was on the city council, and a city official called her in a panic, saying a potentially dangerous bacteria had been found in the water.

Angel explained, “she’s like, ‘I need your help, we have E.Coli in the system.”

Angel immediately began passing out flyers telling residents that, to stay safe, they needed to boil their water before drinking it. While she was spreading the word though she began to wonder “what’s actually going on with our water.”

Mitch Borden / Marfa Public Radio

Elida 'Angel' Machuca has spent most of her life in Toyah, raising two daughters here. Now she's become one of the community's biggest advocate for safe drinking water.

What Angel didn’t know at the time was that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, the agency that regulates drinking water in the state, had been finding problems left and right at Toyah’s water treatment plant.

Instead of telling residents the whole story, Angel claims, local officials like her cousin Toyah Mayor Pro Tem Namoi Machuca would say things were fine.

“Mayor Pro Tem Machuca would say, ‘Oh, TCEQ said we were doing such a wonderful job,’ but the city was getting enforcement orders,” Angel said. “The city was getting fines. All this type of documents from TCEQ, and she wasn’t giving them to the council members.”

Naomi has helped lead Toyah for over a decade on the city council. She didn’t want to sit down for an interview for this story, but Naomi shared this brief comment:

“The only statement I would like to say is that I stand by my employees, I stand by the few volunteers we have, and that we do the best we can with what we got.”

Angel refuses to accept the local government is doing everything to provide safe drinking water to residents. Even though her term on city council eventually ended, she hasn’t given up the fight.

“After that E.Coli incident, I decided I’m going to investigate all this. I’m going to start asking questions, regardless of who likes it or not,” Angel said.

Donna Hogan moved to town around 2018 and opened up a diner called the Lazy S Sisters. She noticed the water was sometimes dirty and smelled. So, she went to the city about it, but Hogan claims she was told, “Nothing is wrong with it. It’s good — drink it.”

But problems at the city’s water treatment plant have been extensive and well documented.

Ranging from equipment breaking and not having anyone qualified to run the facility to raw and untreated water mixing with drinking water.Hogan ended up serving on Toyah’s city council too, and claims the city stalled efforts to address the situation.

“They just keep breaking the law, the same with water,” she said. “They don’t want to be honest about it. They don’t want to tell people about it.”

Years dragged on but the boil water notice was never lifted and is still in place today. Hogan ended up closing her restaurant.

She said, “I’m not a person for vengeance…but with the council we have right now, the water will never be good – I guarantee you.”

Mitch Borden / Marfa Public Radio

For years, Toyah's population has dwindled leaving behind remnants of better days like its abandoned high school.

Toyah Mayor Gordon Hoyt isn’t worried about the local water.

“All I can really say is that I drink the water,” he said. “I’m drinking the water right now as a matter of fact mixed with Kool-Aid of course.”

He became Toyah’s mayor this year and says most people around town don’t put a lot of stock in the boil water notice and concerns around the community’s drinking water.

According to the mayor, “We have a very small number of people that have caused a tremendous amount of grief. It’s just sad because most people don’t want to deal with those individuals.”

The town’s split into two camps, those who drink the water and those who don’t. Angel’s firmly in the latter. Around her house you can see plastic jugs she’s collected over the years for her family to haul in water from a nearby city.

Angel said, “I think we go to Pecos every three or four days just for water.”

She’s even concerned about bathing in local water. People have blamed it for rashes, severe bacterial infections, and digestive issues. So she doesn’t want to take any chances, which has been expensive over the years.

According to Angel, she’s had to spend at times around $200 a month buying water. Reeves County started to distribute free water once a week to help locals mitigate that cost, but few have taken advantage of this resource.

Recently Angel and I took a trip out to Toyah’s water treatment plant to get a better sense of what’s been going on with the city’s water. Driving down gravel county roads, two water towers emerge from the mesquite.

Angel comes out here periodically to check if things have changed at the facility. A decrepit wooden sign hangs on the plant’s front gate.

There’s junk spread out over the fenced in yard – trash, old equipment and pipes left out.“It looks like a messy yard,” Angel said, “it just looks like it’s not maintained properly.”

Mitch Borden / Marfa Public Radio

Trash, half dug trenches and equipment are left out around Toyah's water treatment plant.

To this day, she’s still reaching out to basically anyone who may take Toyah’s water problems seriously. The TCEQ has launched dozens of investigations over the years, but until recently the state largely left residents to fend for themselves.

According to Angel, “If TCEQ would have done their job from the very beginning and put a stop to it — we would not be in this situation.”

Last September, though, the state did file a lawsuit to take over Toyah’s water system. According to court documents, the continued mismanagement of the city’s water poses a “serious threat of harm” to residents.

The case is still open and the people who’ve controlled Toyah’s water for years are still in place. But, while looking at the water treatment plant a white SUV pulled up and Brandie Baker, Toyah’s water operator, along with Ed Puckett, who volunteers with the city, got out of the car.

“If you want both sides of the story, y’all can make an appointment [with the city]” Baker said, after I introduced myself.

“We’ll be happy to bring you inside and show you what is actually happening,” Puckett told me.

It’s obvious the pair have a lot to say, so I made an appointment to get a closer look at Toyah’s water treatment plant. Next week, Marfa Public Radio will dive into the details of what’s been happening at Toyah’s water system and the individuals operating it.

This is part one of a three-part series from Marfa Public Radio and Inside Climate News. Part two will be released next Wednesday.

Editor’s Note: Marfa Public Radio consulted Nakaya Flotte, an ethnographer and applied anthropologist who holds a doctorate in sociocultural anthropology, to understand the origin of Toyah’s name.

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