Two years ago, the discovery of dangerous bacteria in the drinking water of two working-class communities along the Rio Grande in Texas set off alarms among state regulators and investigators. Their arrival sparked hope among residents that perhaps, finally, something might be done about longstanding problems with their water.

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Now, however, it appears that efforts to hold anyone responsible for the 2013 public health crisis in Rio Bravo and El Cenizo are sputtering to an inconclusive end. One former water treatment plant supervisor has pleaded guilty to fudging records to hide water quality problems. A second was acquitted of the same accusation after a trial in August.

Of six other lower-level water department workers indicted on similar charges last fall, three await court hearings, two were referred to a pretrial diversion program and one’s case was dismissed.

Still unanswered, local activists say, are larger questions about how the relatively new water treatment plant operated by Webb County was allowed to fall into such disrepair that it became a public health threat and whether any local officials might be held accountable.

“We spent so much time on this … we were hoping for something good to come out of all this. I don’t know where we’re going from here,” said Guadalupe Elizondo, a Rio Bravo resident and longtime activist seeking to improve conditions in the former colonia. “Who’s guilty, then? Nobody? Did we make all this up?”

The county continues struggling to fix major problems with key equipment at the Rio Bravo Water Treatment Plant, a $12 million facility partly funded by the state that opened in 2006. Shortly after the E. coli discovery in 2013, state regulators slapped a $60,000 fine on the county and demanded that the issues be fixed – but many still have not been. (The Texas Tribune previously reported on the problems in its series Undrinkable.)

riobravo-map
Credit: The Texas Tribune Credit: The Texas Tribune

“There’s so many people that share responsibility in this failure,” said Webb County District Attorney Isildo Alaniz. “How high did it go? That’s a hard question to answer.”

Alaniz said he does not foresee any further criminal charges related to the water treatment plant.

But an investigative report provided to the Tribune after the August trial provides glimpses of the workings – and dysfunctions – of Webb County politics and how those dynamics may have contributed to the breakdown of a system charged with providing safe drinking water to nearly 10,000 people.

The Tribune reviewed more than a thousand pages of documents, including reports by the Texas Rangers and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, along with hours of recorded conversations between investigators and Johnny Amaya, the county’s former water utilities director, who was acquitted in August of charges of falsifying water quality reports.

What emerges is a picture of a water department that was an important part of the county’s system of political patronage – even as one of its biggest and most prized assets, the Rio Bravo Water Treatment Plant, fell into a state of disrepair.

Since its opening, much of the plant’s equipment never has worked properly, including the disinfection unit and computer systems, according to current employees, state records and the investigative report. When the plant opened, none of its operators had the proper licenses, the records show. (Today, plant supervisors say the county still is struggling to comply with that requirement.)

What did function reliably at the plant, according to allegations contained in the Rangers investigative report, was a system of political fundraising and backscratching.

“They were playing politics with people’s water,” said Israel Reyna, an attorney who represents citizens groups in Rio Bravo and El Cenizo. “You can’t do that. You just cannot do that.”

In interviews with more than a dozen current and former Webb County employees, the Texas Rangers were told that water utilities workers routinely were asked to sell tickets for dances or plates of steak – a common way to fundraise in Webb County political races.

If the workers refused or raised less money than was expected, many told the Rangers, they would be demoted, given menial tasks or threatened with dismissal.

One water utilities department employee, Magdalena Sosa, “stated she had to sell or buy $200 worth of tickets every two weeks” or she could be fired or transferred, the Rangers wrote in their report.

Francisco Romero, a former water plant operator, also told the Rangers that he and others “were pressured into selling tickets or risk getting terminated.”

Romero and most other workers interviewed said the tickets were for the campaign of Frank Sciaraffa, commissioner for the precinct in Webb County that includes Rio Bravo and El Cenizo. Sciaraffa served as commissioner from 2005 to 2012 and was re-elected again in 2014. Sciaraffa did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Water enters a phase of treatment at the Rio Bravo treatment plant, which was finished in 2006 with $12 million in state funds.
Water enters a phase of treatment at the Rio Bravo treatment plant, which was finished in 2006 with $12 million in state funds.Credit: Jennifer Whitney/The Texas Tribune Credit: Jennifer Whitney/The Texas Tribune

“When I returned the tickets I did not sell, Mr. Amaya yelled at me and asked me why I had not sold the tickets,” Jorge Mancha, a former operator at the water plant, told the Rangers. “Some of the guys confided in me that they felt like they were being punished for not selling the tickets,” another said.

According to audio recordings of his conversations with investigators, Amaya said he sold tickets himself, but didn’t force anyone else to do so, and couldn’t remember whom they were for.

“Nobody put pressure on me,” he said.

Amaya did not respond to cellphone messages and emails seeking comment, and his lawyer did not respond to an email seeking comment.

The Rangers also found documents in the water department’s storage room, including “several lists with employees’ names and how much they owe or amount of ticket sales,” the investigators’ report said.

Gabino Cerda, another water utilities employee the Rangers interviewed, told them: “I believe no one was forced to sell tickets.” He added that the tickets were “to help the needy,” though he also acknowledged delivering revenues from those sales to Sciaraffa and other commissioners “on county time,” according to the investigators’ report.

Cerda is one of the three remaining people facing criminal allegations of lying about water quality to state regulators and will have a court hearing this month.

Workers also told the Rangers of signs of neglect at the Rio Bravo Water Treatment Plant. They said they were encouraged to work there without licenses, and some unlicensed operators were left alone at the plant during the holidays. Others said workers were taken off their shifts at the plant in order to cook beans or clean decks for campaign fundraisers.

Amaya – who started as janitor with the county in the 1960s and worked his way up to water utilities director – was a supervisor during much of that time. Responding to the allegations, Amaya told investigators that he always believed employees worked their full shift at the plant and that it was difficult to recruit qualified licensed operators.

“I take my job seriously, and I always have,” Amaya told investigators in recorded interviews, noting that some of his relatives live in Rio Bravo and El Cenizo.

“We all have families here,” Amaya said he told his workers. “We have to do the best job possible. If you see of anything that’s wrong, let me know. … We’ll correct it. … We’ll stop it right away.”

According to the investigative reports, Amaya was reprimanded more than two dozen times for ignoring complaints, letting maintenance problems fester and helping political campaigns while on county time. He never was fired. Amaya retired two years ago, shortly after the discovery of E. coli in the drinking water.

“He’s a good, likable guy,” Tomas Rodriguez, a former supervisor of Amaya’s, said in an interview. “The only thing is, he wouldn’t apply himself to get the job done. … I was worried about the water not being treated to meet (health) standards.”

El Cenizo and its neighboring border town of Rio Bravo in South Texas have a brand-new water treatment plant that was supposed to provide nearly 10,000 people here with clean drinking water. But it’s never been run properly, critics say.
El Cenizo and its neighboring border town of Rio Bravo in South Texas have a brand-new water treatment plant that was supposed to provide nearly 10,000 people here with clean drinking water. But it’s never been run properly, critics say.Credit: Jennifer Whitney/The Texas Tribune Credit: Jennifer Whitney/The Texas Tribune

According to the investigative report, one of the 14 reprimands Rodriguez wrote alleged that during startup testing for the new water plant in May 2006, Amaya let the new plant go unmanned for more than four hours.

“It is your responsibility to see that the plant is manned during these tests. Johnny this is not acceptable,” Rodriguez wrote.

Rodriguez tried to fire Amaya, he said, but the county judge at the time, Louis Bruni, wouldn’t accept it. In addition to working for the county, Amaya was elected to Laredo’s City Council and school board.

“I didn’t like it, but that’s the way it is,” Rodriguez recalled. “I work for the judge, he’s the boss, he wants me to put him back, I put him back on the payroll.”

Bruni, who is no longer county judge, did not respond to requests for comment. Nor did his successor, Danny Valdez.

“I don’t think it takes rocket science to know that Amaya was unable to handle that department,” said Alaniz, the Webb County district attorney. “But he was kept there. The reasons why? I don’t know. But those are questions obviously for the commissioners and the powers that be that were there when he was there, as to why they didn’t remove him.”

Alaniz added: “We didn’t find any evidence that would go towards any county officials being involved in any sort of cover-up.”

Of the current and former Webb County elected officials contacted by the Tribune for this story, only one responded: Mike Montemayor, who briefly took over Sciaraffa’s seat as county commissioner after defeating him in a 2012 election.

In an interview, Montemayor said he often complained publicly about conditions at the water plant but was ignored.

“The only time county officials care about Rio Bravo and El Cenizo is when they’re running for office,” he said. “Politics is very dirty.”

Montemayor himself wasn’t immune to Webb County politics. He was interviewed while sitting in the Bastrop federal prison, where he was sent after pleading guilty to accepting thousands of dollars in bribes for political favors. Montemayor is appealing his 76-month sentence, which was handed down earlier this year.

“It’s funny that I’m sitting here saying it in prison, but I really was never influenced by anybody,” he said.

Neena Satija is a radio reporter and producer for Reveal. She is based in The Texas Tribune newsroom in Austin, Texas. Previously, she was an environment reporter for The Texas Tribune, and before that, worked for Connecticut Public Radio. Her reporting on the vulnerability of the Connecticut shoreline won a national award from the Society of Environmental Journalists. Neena grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and graduated from Yale University in 2011.