Richard Shivers flips over the water container tank he uses to transport water to the lot where he lives in Sandbranch on Wednesday, May 26, 2021. Reader Joanna Symmonds was shocked to learn that there was a town without any running water just a short drive from her home. […]
Reader Joanna Symmonds was shocked to learn that there was a town without any running water just a short drive from her home.
“I was just horrified,” Symmonds said. “I had zero idea about people living without running water.”
So she asked Curious Texas, “How is it that Sandbranch ... can have no running water, and how do we find a workable solution?”
Sandbranch — sometimes spelled Sand Branch — is a small unincorporated community of about 100 residents some 20 miles southeast of downtown Dallas. It has never had running water or a sewage system, and has no local government, fire service or streetlights.
The former freedmen’s town can be traced back to the 1800′s, and it survived on well water for decades. Residents suspected the water was contaminated during the 1980s after many got sick after drinking it, according to a 1985 Dallas Morning News article.
The Dallas County Health and Human Services Department confirmed resident suspicions later that year after finding many of Sandbranch’s wells tainted with E. coli. Some attribute the contamination to hog pens in the community, but the cause is still unknown.
Efforts to bring water to Sandbranch have tried and failed for years. Cities around the area have looked to annex it, but advocates believe none have followed through owing to the high costs associated with incorporation. In 2003, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) ruled Sandbranch was in violation of Dallas County floodplain regulations, which halted hope of development.
With no access to water or proper wastewater management for decades, residents of Sandbranch, which is 87% Black, have made do by using donated bottled water for cooking, bathing and drinking. Residents pick up packs of donated bottled water at the only remaining community center, Mt. Zion Baptist Church.
“It’s really impossible if you don’t spend time down there regularly to understand how inconvenienced they are to not have water and sewer that we all take for granted,” environmental attorney Mark McPherson said.
McPherson worked pro bono for Sandbranch Development and Water Supply Corp. when the group formed in 2016. The volunteer-run corporation’s efforts have been one of the first signs of real hope for Sandbranch in a long time.
Grant provides hope
In August 2020, the Texas Water Development Board announced it had granted $450,000 to the corporation. The money is for a detailed planning and design phase of the water line and sewer management construction project. Sandbranch met the board’s criteria because its lack of water and wastewater management were public health concerns.
“Every Texan deserves access to safe, clean water,” said Jessica Pena of the Texas Water Development Board.
But the grant is just the start of what will be a $6.5 million project. The corporation hopes to raise the rest through the USDA Rural Development program.
The corporation will use the funds to build a drinking water and wastewater system with pipes, meters and mains. The organization will buy drinking water from Dallas Water Utilities on a wholesale basis and pay the agency to treat wastewater at its Southside Wastewater Treatment Plant just 5 miles northwest of Sandbranch. McPherson said it’s the most cost-efficient way to source, provide and treat water for the community.
“The result is not guaranteed,” McPherson said. “We still have a lot of hoops to jump through.”
The corporation has used $15,000 of the granted funds so far as reimbursement for preparing the applications, according to TWDB.
A big reason Sandbranch has gone on without water for so long is that it hasn’t had the leadership to take on the highly bureaucratic charge, McPherson said.
“Sandbranch just didn’t have the professional expertise — primarily engineering, secondary legal — to figure this out,” McPherson said.
The community has largely relied on outsiders, like McPherson, who have taken an interest. One of the most prominent advocates for the community was Mount Zion Baptist Church Pastor Eugene Keahey.
“A project like this has got to have a champion, got to have somebody that sees a vision and pursues that vision, and just is dogged in their pursuit of it, and that was Pastor Keahey,” McPherson said.
Keahey brought national attention to Sandbranch in 2016 when he led federal officials on a tour of the community and highlighted the lack of running water. He organized food drives and trash pick-up services, and he was instrumental in putting together a team of engineers and lawyers to search for solutions.
Keahey, his wife and two daughters died in 2019. Authorities say he fatally shot himself while a fire consumed their home. The others died of burns and smoke inhalation, authorities said, and their deaths were ruled homicides.
Since Keahey’s death, others have continued to advocate for Sandbranch.
Richard Shivers, 62, has lived on a lot Sandbranch for the last 10 years. He and Rachel Garcia live in separate homes on the lot. Shivers said that he knew Keahey and his family and that since their deaths, there’s been little movement in getting running water to the community.
“They used to have meetings about the water, and we would go to that church over there and listen to them every three weeks,” Shivers said. “After he was killed with his wife and his kids, that was it.”
When Garcia first purchased her land in Sandbranch, she said she was told that water was located deep in the ground. Most residents have access to water through pumps or wells, and they’ve used them for decades in place of running water.
But when Shivers tried to dig and retrieve water, he said, sand quickly filled the hole back up, making the water inaccessible.
Today, Shivers fills up a large plastic water tank in the back of his truck from a nearby well or station and brings it back home so he, Garcia and their animals can have water. He uses a white tube to funnel the water from the tank to smaller barrels.
With recent rain, the water has become infested with mosquitoes, making it unsafe to drink. Garcia, 66, said he’s tired of living like this.
“I look like I belong in a pigpen,” she said. “Humans should not have to live this way.”
He said that he and Garcia have given up and plan to move out of Sandbranch.
Putting trust in others
Corporation president and former Sandbranch resident Mary Nash said residents aren’t regularly kept informed of the corporation’s progress because they have entrusted the group to handle the highly detailed process.
“We didn’t know anything about writing grants and submitting grants, getting attorneys for this and engineers for that,” Nash said. “The people of Sandbranch didn’t know that, and we still don’t. But God has placed people that are smart ... to get us started and help us get water.”
Before Keahey’s efforts, the idea of bringing water to Sandbranch seemed almost impossible. After FEMA declare that the community was in a floodplain, Dallas County decided to demolish homes that weren’t in compliance with county flood regulations, and the Texas Water Development Board allocated money to help relocate those residents. Only the homes that were built before Dallas County’s floodplain’s regulations were established were allowed to remain, and the population shrank to about the size it is today.
McPherson said that FEMA has since changed the Sandbranch floodplain maps. Today, much of the community lies at or above base floodplain regulation and could be reasonably developed.
For many, including Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, giving Sandbranch residents money to move out seems like the only solution. He told The Dallas Morning News in 2019 that he lost hope that water will come to Sandbranch and that spending millions on a community of less than 100 wouldn’t be a good investment.
“All I can say is I was never convinced — and it didn’t matter who was in [Keahey’s] chorus — that you could make it work,” Price said at the time.
But McPherson said he has a different philosophy.
“This is where they want to choose to live,” he said. “As long as they can live there lawfully, they should be able to choose to live there.”
For those who have fought for Sandbranch, last year’s grant from the Texas Water Development Board to help design a water line and sewer management system was a significant victory.
“I sat down and wept for about two hours,” McPherson said.
McPherson said he has built meaningful relationships with Sandbranch residents.
“To bring that convenience to that little community just means the world,” he said.
If everything goes according to plan, construction of a drinking water and wastewater treatment system for Sandbranch will begin in 2023.
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