The increasing growth of urban populations has put a strain on urban services and increased urban housing prices. As a result, low-income residents often settle on the periphery of cities, sometimes in informal settlements called “colonias,” where it is less expensive to live, but these areas have limited access to services. While we may think these informal settlements are only found in the developing world, the United States has many colonias along its southern border, with Texas having the largest share. The residents of the colonias suffer from subpar services including water and wastewater infrastructure, which can lead to health issues. How do people experiencing this subpar service interact with infrastructure services?

Researchers Felipe Araya, Rachael Singer, Jonathan Charnitski, and Kasey M. Faust wanted to find out what alternative methods colonia residents were using for services. If they were not drinking tap water, did they incur a financial burden buying bottled water? And what about wastewater; how were they disposing of that if not connected to the sewage systems?

The authors conducted in-person surveys with 92 residents and used qualitative analyses to identify and understand challenges faced by the respondents regarding their water and wastewater infrastructure systems. Their results are published in “Beyond the Pipes: How User Perceptions Influence Their Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Interactions in Texas Colonias” in the Journal of Sustainable Water in the Built Environment. With more information on water usage in colonias, state and local authorities can develop localized policies and implement alternatives that improve water and wastewater access. Learn more about their findings at The abstract is below.


Informal settlements known as colonias in the U.S. often lack access to infrastructure services or receive subpar services. Existing literature has focused on the dilapidated state of the physical infrastructure with less attention paid to how residents interact with their available systems while facing unreliable services. Using a survey carried out in 2018, this study explores the human–infrastructure interactions in residents of a non-border colonia in central Texas. Qualitative content analysis was used to explore how residents interact with their water and wastewater infrastructure within their household. Our study shows that residents’ perceptions of water safety influenced how residents used their household’s water infrastructure. Residents preferred alternative drinking water sources, seeking out bottled water. They also modified their services received via filtering and boiled drinking water from the tap. Importantly, the household income level was significantly associated with how residents interacted with water infrastructure, raising equity and cost issues. Regarding wastewater infrastructure, operational problems with septic tanks were the most pressing problems for residents. Maintenance costs were found to represent a barrier for residents precluding the sustainable operation of septic tanks in the long-term. Understanding how colonia residents respond to infrastructure challenges can enable policymakers to develop more effective and efficient policies for built-environment interventions. These findings should also prompt policymakers to assess state and local institutions’ roles as providers and enforcers of Texas water and environmental quality.

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