08: Investigating Water Scarcity for Climate-Vulnerable Communities Along the US-Mexico Border

Ricardo Rubio grew up in the borderlands region of southwestern Texas where he came to recognize the challenges and vulnerabilities that communities like his increasingly face because of the compounded effects of water scarcity, political disempowerment, infrastructure scarcity, and climate change. Rubio is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Utah and his research is part of a University of Utah College of Science SRI Stream, the Science Research Initiative, called “Big Data for Climate Science.” He is also a  Research Assistant under Dr. Sara Grineski at the Center for Natural and Technological Hazards at the University of Utah.  In this episode, Rubio talks about his work investigating social disparities in the face of climate change-related hazards and disasters, and what he is learning by documenting the water challenges impacting communities along the southern border and identifying possible solutions. 

Listen to the Interview


Ross Chambless
So, Ricardo Rubio, I’m excited to learn more about what you’ve been working on. And thank you so much for taking this time to talk with us now.

Ricardo Rubio
Glad to be here.

Ross Chambless
So, can you just tell us what you are researching?

Ricardo Rubio

Ricardo Rubio
Yeah. So, currently I’m working on my dissertation related to looking at water insecurity along the US-Mexico border. And this is the first study to look at the disparity of this water-related hazard throughout the entirety of the US-Mexico border, stretching from Texas to California. And I’m primarily looking only at what’s known as the borderlands or the border region defined by the La Paz Agreement. And that’s roughly 62.5 miles north and south of the physical border wall. And I’m only looking at the U.S. side because that’s where my data is available.

Within the borderland exist these communities called colonias.  And these colonias are these peri-urban settlements that exist. They’re typically on the outskirts of towns, and they’re unincorporated settlements that typically don’t have access to basic utilities, such as paved roads, electricity, water service, either piped water or wastewater service. And these are some of the most marginalized communities, not only within the borderlands, but throughout the entirety of the U.S.  And I’m looking specifically at their lack of access to plumbing. And the way I measure plumbing comes from the U.S. Census Bureau and more specifically, the American Community Survey and what it’s referred to as “plumbing incompleteness.” And this is essentially a lack of access to hot and cold running water, having a flushing toilet and a lack of having a bathtub or a shower.

So, what I’m looking at here is what demographics are specifically related or more likely associated with a lack of plumbing.  Some of the demographics I’m looking at are citizenship and nativity, English proficiency, race, ethnicity, disability status, single woman, household status, poverty, and tenure status. Essentially, people are renting or owning these houses where they live. And then within these households, I’m also doing this sort of intersectional analysis, this inter-categorical analysis where you’re comparing differences within often homogenized groups. And this can be the six major racial and ethnic categories as defined by the census. So, it would be something similar to comparing someone who is Latino and foreign born and how they compare to someone who’s Latino and U.S. born, and sort of doing these intersections, other demographics within the broader racial and ethnic categories.

Ross Chambless
Interesting. So, what sort of what questions or challenge are you are you setting out to address when you when you started this work using all this data?

Ricardo Rubio
So initially, the way I wanted to start doing this data, this project story, was I wanted to track rates of plumbing incompleteness and how they changed over time and to see if there’s been increases or decreases depending on the demographic makeup of the specific areas or specific cities along the US-Mexico border. But that turned out to be a challenge given the limitations of the data. I can’t say why that was a challenge, but essentially, I couldn’t do it that way. So, I just started thinking of it in the sort of intersectional perspective that I’ve done in previous work related to air pollution as well as food insecurity.

And yeah, so no study before has looked at the entirety of the borderlines. That was one aspect of adding to it, you know, carrying out this analysis in the entirety of this area, and then as well adding this intersectional analysis that hasn’t been done before and then adding the geographic boundaries of colonias that had also been done before, where the boundaries only existed for New Mexico and then Texas. And that’s the majority of these water security studies had been done. And there’s a general understanding in the literature that people in colonias are more water insecure. But there’s a lot of different proxies for water insecurity. And the plumbing and completeness measure that I’m looking at is one proxy. So, this proxy hadn’t been looked at the entirety of the borderlands, but it’s been like that through the entirety of the, you know, like the contiguous U.S.

So, you know, breaking it down to this area and not only looking at it specifically within the borderlands, but looking at it within the colonias. And as I mentioned earlier, their geographies weren’t known for Arizona and California. So, I worked with an undergraduate student to manually digitize these areas. And the data for these colonias came from the Rural Community Assistance Partnership and they gave us point data that we were able to use with their number lots data, to sort of count the area of what the column, you know, most likely possibly is. And that allowed us to analyze colonias in their entirety, which had been done before.

Ross Chambless
Interesting. And one understanding I have of this particular SRI stream for this research endeavor you’re taking on is that you’re able to get some access to a lot of incredible like sort of fine data on these topics, right? Can you talk about that? Like, what’s the process been like for you to access this?

Ricardo Rubio
Yeah, so I’m like seeing my data through the Wasatch Front Statistical Research data Center essentially is what they’re all called throughout the U.S. research data centers. And there’s a very specific journey that I can’t remember off the top of my head. But, essentially you submit a proposal for a project or multiple projects that you want to do in there that was submitted by Dr. Tim Collins and Dr. Sara Grineski, and they asked me to be a part of this research, given I had changed my dissertation topic and working with this data would be, you know, the best thing possible.

And, essentially what you have to do in order to gain access to the ability to work in there is known as special sworn status.  And it’s this multi-month-long process where you do these census research trainings, essentially ensuring what kind of data you’re going to be working with the sensitivity of this data, and ultimately what your responsibility is as a researcher to be taking care of this data. And this is different from public data where anyone could access it, but there are several steps you need to take in order to gain this access to this data. And essentially, once you gain special sworn status, after you’ve done your fingerprints, you’ve done your interviews, you’ve done your trainings, you’re essentially ensuring the Census that this person knows what they’re doing. They’re going to take care of this data, not just beforehand, but once they get results. And they’re going to ensure that, what I assume is the biggest concern of the Census is that this data isn’t, first of all, easily accessible, and the richness of this data makes people identifiable, and that’s the last thing they want in order. You know, no one wants to be identified.

And this gets a bit more complex when you’re working with very, I’d say, more uncommon demographics. You know, someone who is African American and foreign born and doesn’t speak English very well. You know, this isn’t a very common demographic, at least when the within the US-Mexico borderlands that is primarily Latino population, right? There’s a very low population of African Americans. So, as they start to get rarer, their demographics per say, it could be easier to identify them. And you need to take the proper measures to make sure this isn’t going to happen. Once you start extracting your results and start putting out your papers.

Ross Chambless
And so, with all this data that you’ve been able to access and collect, what sort of the information or what patterns are you looking for?  What do you hope to gain or discover with this project?

Distribution of U.S. colonias along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Ricardo Rubio
So essentially, as I’ve done, as I’ve used this entire categorical approach again, which is looking at differences within major racial and ethnic categories can also be expanded to other demographics. But I primarily do racial and ethnic categories. You know, just to see of these same within group differences exist in water security, as I’ve seen that they exist for air pollution as well as food insecurity. So, I think that’s one major aspect.

And then another one is to see really where these pockets of plumbing incompleteness exist along the US-Mexico border, as the majority of studies that look at this measure or this proxy for water security have found that it primarily exists on the Texas-Mexico border. And the issue with publicly available data is that they have geographic limitations in terms of, you know, there’s sort of like the counties and state block tract. And each of these areas consists of several different like thousands of populations. So, when using this sort of data, you don’t know exactly where people are located within these boundaries. So, let’s say for a U.S. Census tract, for example, on average they consist of about 4,000 people. You’re only going to get estimates of their demographics. And these sorts of measures specifically relating back to my measuring plumbing incompleteness is as that does come from the American Community survey, it does belong to this U.S. Census Bureau. You only have an idea of where these people can be within the census tract, and not all census tracts are the same in terms of what their geographic boundaries are.

So, one issue is, as I mentioned earlier, when demographics start to get more uncommon, there’s higher margins of error and there’s higher estimates. So, the data isn’t as accurate. And that’s, again, for protection purposes of the individuals who provided their data. Right. So that’s one limitation.

Another limitation is the ecological fallacy that leads to, again, where you have these how would I say these estimates of plumbing incompleteness for a tract. But again, you don’t know where these people live. So, you’re sort of attributing that, okay, 50% of people within this tract are plumbing incomplete.  And in a way that’s sort of saying it could be everyone in this particular part of the tract or this particular part of the tract. But it’s a fallacy in the sense that, again, we don’t know where these people lie, and you’re sort of attributing something from at a higher level from the tract to the individual level again, which is more so what the ecological fallacy is that you’re attributing their risk of exposure when you exactly don’t know if that’s true at the individual level, again, because these are estimates and all full counts. So that’s one issue.

And again, going back to this geographic limitation is that you don’t know where people lie within these tract boundaries counties. And when you try to bring other contextually relevant data, such as a community water system or piped water, which is another measure of water security, again, you are going to know where these people lie within these boundaries, where you have the tract or you have the county. You are bringing in this community water system lines or boundaries. And again, you just don’t know where these people lie. So, you could say that they you’re going to be unsure if they do or don’t have access to a community water service. Yeah. And it just makes it harder to bring in, again, just more contextually relevant data that can make your analysis more accurate.

Ross Chambless
Yeah, Right. I wanted that kind of back up and ask a question that I think some policymakers or people generally might wonder why do you think what you’re working on really matters?  Why does it matter to you, and also, why does it why does it matter to informing policymakers?

Ricardo Rubio
Yeah. To answer both questions.  There’s this sort of normalization and also resistance to people experiencing water security along the US-Mexico border, where the house that I grew up in…  sorry, I forgot to mention this earlier, but I am from the US-Mexico border, and this is where I grew up. And the area I grew up in my house, my grandma, my grandmother’s house was a colonia for a long time.  And, you know, a funny thing about colonias is that once they get this designation, it’s sort of never removed from the neighborhood. So that’s like one thing to consider when working with this sort of colonia data.

But again, going back to this normalization or, this is what we just have to deal with, my grandparents went 30 years without access to water.  And this is something I never heard of growing up, until about maybe a couple of years ago, where I brought up and the kind of work I’m doing.  And I asked them and they’re like, oh yeah, we went through this. And that’s just sort of what it is, you know.  Everyone on the street, everyone in the neighborhood went through this. There’s nothing we could really do other than, you know, just try, and survive. You know, we’re going to get water somehow, someway. And that’s sort of what’s going on with colonias now.

So, that’s sort of my personal connection to it.  I’ve done other work in colonias where that just exists down the road for me.  And it’s sort of this similar situation that I mentioned earlier where they don’t have electricity. They don’t have paved roads. So, you know, these struggles still exist.

And going back to, you know, the policy implications of this, where I believe Texas is the only state to officially recognize colonias, and they did so roughly around 40, 30 years ago. And they did make their efforts to increase water access, wastewater treatment. But it sort of just stopped. And there’s some more malicious things going on there, where either community water service providers or policymakers are sort of like, you know what, this area isn’t worthy of our investment. We’re not getting enough money from them or, you know, they’re too far from us or too rural. It’s not going to be worth the investment of trying to give these people water.

So that’s one aspect of it. And this is sort of the sentiment was put forth again, I think during one of the most recent meetings of the legislature in Texas, where again, they’re going to start providing more water for providing better water for structure. But in their language, they purposefully said we’re going to exclude colonias.

You know, and it’s sort of going back in contrast to what they’ve done for the past 30 years. Where they were trying to make the effort to try and improve the situation of these communities.  But then again, a couple of years later, after this project sort of ended for them, it’s like, well, we don’t care about them anymore.  We did what we had to. And that’s sort of that, right.  And that’s just in Texas. I believe New Mexico has made their efforts to officially start recognizing them again. I’m not too sure on that. But, you know, there is better data on these colonias within New Mexico. So, I’m assuming some more stuff is going on there.

And in Arizona, it’s a more interesting situation as most of these colonias are located within Native American reservations that have their own set of tribal laws and that sort of go against federal laws. And it’s also well documented in the literature, that Native Americans have their major issues with water security. So, it’d be interesting to know what is going on there, and how do these people get water.

And in California, they have the least number of colonias. But their situation is a bit more complex in terms of, they’re not located near cities, whereas that’s not the case within New Mexico and Texas, for example.  So, it’s just sort of, you know, what could apply to Texas might not apply in the other three states. So, I think that’s one important thing to gather. You know, where are these where are these pockets where plumbing insecurity exist? This proxy for water insecurity. Again, as mentioned earlier, this is the first study to do an entire borderland study.  And to figure out where do these pockets exist, and how do the state legislatures, or how do these people feel about it?

Ross Chambless
Yeah, and thinking about the whole borderlands area that you’re looking at and the potential populations impacted, I mean, what would you say is roughly the estimate of the number of people that are in these colonias that are kind of impacted by this issue? I mean, it’s in the thousands, tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands?

Ricardo Rubio
Yeah, it roughly be in the tens of thousands. And again, given the limitations of the data, I can’t say the exact number. But roughly around 840,000 people live in colonias with the population of the borderlands being around 8 million.

So, you know, close to 1/10 of the population lives in these in colonias. And that’s not to say that everyone there, not all residents of colonias, are water secure. But, you know, it might be that in some sort of way they are. Or, you know, if they’re not experiencing it now, that thankfully they’ve been given access or have some sort of better access, it doesn’t mean that they didn’t experience it in the past. Right.

So, I think at the end of the day, it’s just to work towards better improving the situation of colonia residents in these communities. And one of the interesting findings in my dissertation for what I can share for now is that the belief is that water insecurity mainly exists within colonias. But I found that in my results that the majority of inequality is related to plumbing incompleteness exists outside of colonias. So it could be that the colonias are not as demographically diverse.  Or, it could be, what kind of communities exist outside of colonias, within the borderlands that are more, you know, water insecure.

Ross Chambless
Yeah, I think you touched on this a little bit, but as far as what kind of if you could look, you know, ahead in a couple of years once you get your research published, what in your mind right now, like what kind of legislation or government policies do you would you hope to have an impact on or help to inform?

Ricardo Rubio
So, I think the first step is to officially recognize this goal as they do exist and what might apply in Texas might not apply in New Mexico in terms of the severity of the colonias. You know, colonias have existed for much longer, at least in Texas, around close to 60, 70 years now. But it could be the colonias in California, Arizona are a bit more fresh to the scene, and they might have their own sets of problem. One thing is the physical landscape of these areas. What does water look like at a general level? Is this water suffering? Is or is this area already suffering from a lack of water generally? Is their aquifer already depleted? You know, that’s an issue that’s plaguing the, you know, the El Paso, Las Cruces area. And are these areas having to rely on an aquifer from much further north in New Mexico, for example? So, what does the water landscape look like there?

Going down into these communities, respecting these communities, and getting their needs met is essentially, I think, the most the most crucial part, right.

And as I mentio­­­ned earlier, as a quantitative researcher, we only have an idea of what’s going on, what might be going on there. You know, and data especially limited, you know, limited by time where this data was collected a couple of years ago, it could be that the situation got better or worse. So, again, just going into these communities, seeing what they actually need.

It might be that they’re okay with one aspect of their situation where they’ve come as a community to start, you know, informing, forming this informal water system amongst themselves. You know, they could be okay with the water trucks that provide them water. They could be okay with purchasing water.

Those are some things that could be happening there, or it could be just listening to their constituents, giving them political representation and integrating them in some sort of political sense, integrating them in to a community water system, you know, and not giving them a shorthand. If you’re going to provide piped water, you also have to provide a wastewater treatment.

And there’s other issues. With climate change what does the water landscape look like? Is flooding going to become a situation? There are other facets of water infrastructure that need to be taken into consideration for these sorts of areas that might not even have paved roads or pavement to deal with flooding or water, rain, water that could be happening.

Ross Chambless
Right. There’s a lot a lot there to consider. But really good that it’s being documented in the work you’re doing.  So, I just wanted to get kind of just a couple more questions. And I was thinking that, you know, is there looking back, what was the impetus for you to start looking at this problem? And I think you mentioned it a little bit, but was there some key experiences in your past that brought you to have an interest in this inquiry? And just to recognize that, you know, I know you got a bachelor’s degree from University of Texas, El Paso. It sounds like you studied psychology and then also you got a master’s degree in sociology. So how does that that previous academic experience, how do you feel that that’s informing your work now?

Ricardo Rubio
Yeah, so I initially began doing food and security research, given that’s what I was interested as an undergraduate student. And then moving forward, I started focusing on air pollution and it sort of sort of took me a while or, you know, it’s I’m looking at these studies nationally and, I wanted to get more into the nitty gritty and focus on a specific area. And I don’t know why it took me three or four years into my dissertation to realize, why am I not focusing on the area where I come?

And one of my older papers, I sort of looking at air pollution along the US-Mexico borderlands.  And, going back home in my work and sort of looking at the issues that existed there.  Something else to mention is, even though I grew up in a former colonia, relatively close to a bunch of other colonias, these sorts of issues aren’t really spoken of or well-known outside of an academic perspective, or even for policymakers.  Like these kinds of spaces where people grew up down the street from you.

I’m grateful to not have sort of experienced this firsthand. But, also to be in a space where more work still needs to be done and researched. So, I think that’s something important. And I think this aspect came to me when I had to move back to Texas during during COVID, where I was living with my grandparents. And, you know, just sort of seeing and hearing of their experiences of what it was like in that area they lived for at least 40 plus years.

So, I think that’s one aspect. Right. And then sort of just seeing these other issues that are developing that were developing back home in Texas that are, you know, a fracking plant, one of the come into a colonia, you know, and they already have an existing polluting industry. And they just want to make things worse for these residents.  And they do it on purpose, right. Because they know that they don’t have the political representation to push back. And these are just sort of these issues that are developing. These environmental injustice issues are developing and have existed for a long time, you know.  Not only in the borderlands but throughout the entire country.

And, you know, and they’re primarily impacting low-income communities, communities of color. Right. And it’s sort of what can we as researchers, what what’s our role in this? You know, apart from just doing the research, how do we get involved in these communities, just lending our hand or making our work more easily accessible or disseminating our work in different ways?

So, I think these are really, you know, some of the important ways in which, you know, we as researchers begin to disseminate our work, get more involved with the community. And, you know, we learn much more from the community and they learn from us.

Ross Chambless
Yeah. Well, good for you for putting this hard work into this issue and for illuminating it for the rest of us so that there’s awareness and potentially room to improve the situation for so many people. Well, Ricardo, thank you again so much for taking the time to talk about what you’re working on.