How state regulators allowed a fading West Texas town to go over four years without safe drinking water
This story was reported and produced in collaboration with Mitch Borden, a reporter at Marfa Public Radio.
TOYAH, Texas—It all began simply enough: A boil water notice was issued. A state inspection followed. A list of violations arrived. It’s a well-known pattern in small Texas towns that struggle to maintain their water systems.
But there was nothing simple about Toyah’s water woes, which were years in the making and remain unresolved. A boil water notice issued in June 2018 is still in effect. In the shadow of the country’s most prosperous oil and gas fields, the residents of Toyah, many low-income and Hispanic, have gone nearly five years without safe drinking water.
Elida “Angel” Machuca, a former city council member and mother of two, has made it her mission to expose Toyah’s water crisis. She holds the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) responsible for allowing the town to stall and remain out of compliance with hundreds of drinking water violations it filed against Toyah over the past five years.
It wasn’t until Sept. 30, 2022 that at TCEQ’s request the Texas Attorney General brought a civil suit against Toyah to place the public water utility in a receivership.
After years of agitating, Machuca is finally seeing results. But residents still have no clear answer of when the water will be safe to drink.
A cascade of mistakes and mismanagement has left this small West Texas town without safe drinking water, Inside Climate News and Marfa Public Radio found in reporting that included over a dozen interviews and a review of hundreds of pages of public records.
City leaders failed to hire properly licensed water treatment plant operators, missed grant opportunities and installed improper bypasses and pipe connections at the plant, while TCEQ officials did almost nothing, year after year, to ensure that citizens had clean water to drink. While boil water notices in cities like Midland and Houston have caused public consternation, Toyah’s water crisis, which has not been previously reported in-depth, received little notice.
“TCEQ cannot remove themselves from the gross negligence that is here,” Machuca said. “The city, the county and the state have all been negligent.”
She became so frustrated after a term on the city council that she turned in late 2021 to Kelly Haragan, director of the Environmental Clinic at the University of Texas Law School, who, it turns out, knew how to pull the levers of power in Austin, the state capital.
“It’s really shocking and unacceptable that there was a boil water notice for four years and that there hasn’t been clear communication to people in Toyah about what’s going on,” Haragan said in an interview. “And that no one did anything to provide people with clean drinking water in the meantime.”
TCEQ spokespeople declined repeated requests to comment on the case, citing the ongoing civil suit.
Gordon Hoyt, Toyah’s new mayor, dismissed concerns about the water.
“The water is tested by an independent laboratory. I see all the tests,” Hoyt said. “I understand what’s coming through the pipes and I drink it.”
A History of Water Problems
Toyah is in Reeves County, on the southwestern edge of the oil-rich Permian Basin. The town was founded as a trading post for area ranchers and grew after the railroad arrived in 1881.
The Texas and Pacific Railroad built a pipeline from a lake in the Davis Mountains, in between Fort Davis and Balmorhea, to fill steam engines in Toyah. That lake became, and remains, the town’s drinking water supply. That sets Toyah apart from most West Texas towns, which rely on aquifers.
Toyah once had hundreds of residents and its own high school—the crumbling brick building still stands—but the population has dwindled to around 100 people. A gas station and Uncle’s convenience store straddle the exit off Interstate 20, but residents drive to Pecos for shopping, medical care and school.
Online, Toyah is known as a ghost town, and travelers pass through town to see the boarded-up old high school and abandoned houses. Today, the town’s only growth industry is providing waste ponds for sewage from the oil and gas fields of the Permian Basin.
Some Toyah residents have tried to discredit Machuca’s activism because her brother, Bartolo Sanchez, known as Bart, served as mayor from 2006 until 2012, when he was accused of stealing over $100,000 from the city. He later pled guilty to wire fraud and aggravated identity theft, served time in prison and returned to Toyah. He died in 2021.
Sanchez had also served as water operator in Toyah. In the years following his conviction, Toyah went through several water operators, despite a TCEQ waiver that enabled it to run its water treatment plant with only a C class licensed operator, and was cited repeatedly for violations by TCEQ.
In 2016, a resident named Ed Puckett, who was not a licensed engineer, volunteered to help the city with its water treatment plant and applied to the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) for a $200,000 grant for monitoring improvements. With the proceeds, Toyah hired engineer James Busby, of the Burgess & Niple firm in Midland, to design upgrades.
In an interview, Busby said the water plant needed work beyond the grant’s scope. He said Toyah promised to find additional funds but that, when it came time, the city did not pay him for the extra work and he left the project.
The other outstanding problem was a bypass that Reeves County engineer Raul Rodriguez installed in 2017 to route untreated water around the plant while improvements were made. Rodriguez said he notified TCEQ’s Midland office of the bypass.
Angel Machuca, 49, joined Toyah’s city council in May 2018. She quickly learned the water treatment plant was in trouble. On June 14, 2018, routine water testing by the city’s water operator found that samples of Toyah’s water tested positive for E. coli and the city issued a boil water notice.
TCEQ investigators in 2018 also found chlorine levels in the city water did not meet state standards and said they had only then learned of the bypass Rodriguez had installed. They also revoked the waiver that had allowed Toyah to run its water treatment plant with a C license water operator.
Machuca began studying drinking water laws that summer. She called the TCEQ offices in Midland and Austin. She printed out administrative code at the local library to pour over at home. Combing through meeting notes and budget documents, she also had questions about the Toyah’s finances.
The city had contracted with Puckett, the resident who obtained the water treatment grant, to also manage the sewer ponds. With oilfield activity picking up around Toyah, more companies were paying to dump their waste in the ponds. The sewer ponds did brisk business in 2017 and 2018, with over $500,000 in revenue between October 2017 and July 2018.
An invoice showed that in May 2018 alone Puckett was paid over $8,000 for operating the sewer ponds. But in the months and years that followed, contractors cut ties with Toyah over unpaid invoices.
While educating herself, Machuca also dealt with the boil water notice at her modest one-story house in Toyah. The tap water would often come out brown or yellow. Angel and her husband Miguel filled jugs with water in Pecos, 20 miles up the interstate, for drinking and cooking.
The council voted to hire Elpidio Arreola, a B license water operator from El Paso. But in December 2018 he resigned, citing concerns with the treatment plant, potential falsification of reports and late payments.
He wasn’t the only one. Rip Halbaedier, an A license water operator from Odessa, said he visited Toyah in 2018 and offered his services. But he said after his first invoice went unpaid, he didn’t return. The city fell back on C license operators, failing to comply with TCEQ’s order.
In late 2018, Rodriguez’s bypass was still in place, diverting the town’s water around the treatment plant.
A Council Ally
Machuca found an ally on the city council the following year in Donna Hogan. She and her husband, Philip, were recent transplants to Toyah. They had opened a restaurant, Lazy S Sisters, just months before the boil water notice went into effect.
“There would be days that the water would be yellow or brown,” Donna remembered. “I couldn’t in good faith serve people anything that had anything to do with the water.”
The Hogans installed a reverse osmosis water filter system. They replaced the filter every week but the water was still discolored. Eventually they closed the restaurant.
At council meetings, Machuca and Hogan would raise questions about the water situation with Mayor Bobby Creamer and Mayor Pro Tem Naomi Machuca, Angel’s cousin.
Angel Machuca’s younger daughter Jocelyn, now 19, would tag along to meetings. She took notes on terms she was hearing, like trihalomethanes and giardia. Water testing by the operator found trihalomethanes, a disinfection byproduct, were measured in excess in the city water. According to the EPA, long-term exposure to trihalomethanes can cause liver, kidney or central nervous system problems and increase cancer risk.
“She would read about it, but she wouldn’t tell me her concerns,” Machuca said.
Then one day her daughter broke down crying and admitted she was scared to bathe in the city water. “’Mom, we’re gonna die,’” Machuca remembered her daughter saying. “’Those trihalomethanes, mom… they cause cancer.’”
Machuca started hauling more water from Pecos, now in 5-gallon jugs, so they could bathe in it, too. She estimated the family was spending $25 to $30 a week on water, on top of the water bill. Miguel’s income as a truck driver supports the family of four. They cut back on eating out and other expenses to make ends meet.
Meanwhile, Philip Hogan developed a bacterial infection and underwent emergency bypass surgery in Lubbock. His doctor said the water could be a factor. Donna noticed rashes after she showered in the water and started getting urinary tract infections.
“We lived a long time in Pecos and we used their water and never had any issues,” Philip said.
“But once we moved into Toyah it was just automatic.”
By late 2019, Machuca wasn’t the only one with questions about contractors. City Attorney Rod Ponton went so far as to resign, citing concerns with water operators and the hiring process for a city worker. He urged Toyah’s city council to conduct an audit.
Machuca thought TCEQ needed to take a closer look at whether local leaders in Toyah were acting in good faith. “Why was TCEQ letting Toyah slip through the cracks and let them get away with this nonsense?” she said.
Machuca Reaches Out
Toyah finally hired a new C license water operator named Brandie Baker in 2020, even though TCEQ had revoked its waiver and was now requiring a more skilled operator with a B license. The agency continued to issue violations for a litany of problems: failing to submit water monitoring information, failing to distribute boil water notices, not having a B license operator, excessive trihalomethane levels.
In 2021, Puckett and Baker found what they thought was the source of the problem: a cross-connection that allowed raw water to mix with treated water. They removed it and, according to Puckett, brown or murky water no longer reached Toyah homes.
Machuca’s term on city council had ended but she continued speaking out. She started filming and recording her conversations and feared retaliation from the remaining council members and mayor. Not everyone in town agreed with her tactics. Machuca disputed her water bill with the city and eventually her connection was shut off.
Desperate, she reached out to Haragan, at the UT Law School’s Environmental Law Clinic in Austin.
“She just called me out of the blue and explained what was going on,” Haragan remembered. “We started looking into it and started looking at the TCEQ’s website and could tell that there were real problems.”
When Toyah came up on TCEQ meeting agendas in Austin—over 400 miles away—UT law students spoke on behalf of Machuca and other Toyah residents. Because Toyah hadn’t acted on many of the previous enforcement orders, they urged TCEQ to do more.
“Toyah is out in the middle of nothing in West Texas and people don’t have a whole lot of political power,” Haragan said. “There wasn’t much attention paid (to Toyah).”
“These provisions are not enough to bring the city into compliance,” UT law student Alessandra Papa told the TCEQ commissioners at a Nov. 3, 2021 meeting. “Toyah warrants a closer look. The citizens deserve clean drinking water and they deserve transparency.”
From Toyah, Naomi Machuca, the mayor pro tem; Puckett, the waste pond operator and water volunteer; and water operator Baker joined by phone that day. Baker said she was just one class away from testing for her B license.
The commissioners appeared satisfied.
“It’s very, very challenging and the problems are familiar to us,” commissioner Jon Niermann said. “It does sound like you’re making some real progress.”
Haragan said TCEQ’s response wasn’t enough. “I think the city basically learned that TCEQ wasn’t going to follow up, more than issuing those enforcement orders,” she said. “[The city] took advantage of that.”
In May 2022, the UT law clinic and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid sent a letter to the EPA regional office in Dallas, urging officials to fully inform Toyah residents about health issues and provide safe drinking water until the problems were fixed.
The EPA joined a TCEQ investigation in Toyah in early 2022. The outside pressure may have spurred TCEQ to take stronger action; finally, in September 2022, the Texas Attorney General brought a civil suit against Toyah at the request of TCEQ. Time was up for Toyah to get into compliance.
‘How Are We Going to Get Water to This Community?’
State of Texas v. City of Toyah, filed in Travis County 459th District Court, seeks to appoint a receiver to take over the water system and implement changes.
“The PWS (public water system) services the small community of Toyah, Texas, and is responsible for providing its customers with a safe and suitable drinking water supply,” the state’s case reads. “Toyah failed to adequately provide this service, and subsequently placed the health and safety of its customers in danger.”
In an amended petition filed Dec. 14, 2022, the state reiterated that Toyah has not submitted any additional documentation to prove compliance with TCEQ orders.
“During the compliance investigation, TCEQ investigators discovered Toyah had almost no knowledge of what was required of it or the PWS to implement such improvements,” the amended petition states.
Machuca sees the lawsuit as a step forward. But she also wonders why TCEQ waited years to act.
“TCEQ is trying to advocate for the people but also covering up their part,” she said. “If TCEQ had done their job, that [surface water treatment plant] would not be in the condition that it’s in.”
Haragan said there are questions the lawsuit doesn’t resolve, like finding a more cost effective water supply for Toyah. That might mean consolidating with a larger water system.
“The lawsuit in itself can provide pressure for a fix,” she said. “But people have to actually figure out, how are we going to get water to this community?”
In an interview, Puckett contended that he and Baker are working on improvements at the water plant. He gulped down a big glass of water straight from the tank to show that he trusts the water they are producing. Baker declined to be interviewed because of the lawsuit.
“It is our intention to do it right,” he said. “We have a plan. We fixed everything that is broken.”
Puckett said Toyah has no option other than waiting for Baker to get her B water operator license because other water operators are unwilling to work with the town. He also claimed that Toyah does not have the funds for additional work on the plant and would not qualify for grants to address 36 violations of state drinking water regulations cited by TCEQ in July 2022.
“Toyah is not a rich town,” he said. “Toyah has no money.”
As for his own income from the sewer ponds, Puckett dismissed suspicions of impropriety.
“My percentage of [revenue generated] was pretty high, at two cents a gallon,” Puckett said. “High enough that everybody was jealous of the fact that I was making that kind of money.”
He said revenue from the sewer ponds went to pay off a USDA loan that funded construction of the ponds years earlier. After that, the city ran out of money to pay contractors.
Jesse Milonovich, of the Texas Water Development Board’s Regional Water Project Development team, said Toyah submitted the necessary paperwork to execute the 2017 grant. Milonovich stressed that TWDB’s mission is to work with rural communities that struggle to finance water projects. As long as Toyah followed TWDB’s requirements, they would be eligible to apply again.
TWDB invited Toyah to apply for another $300,000 from the TWDB in 2019. Puckett said the city eventually withdrew from the process because, without a city accountant and unable to submit audits, it could not fulfill TWDB’s requirements.
Gordon Hoyt replaced Bobby Creamer as mayor in February 2022. He said the water is fine to drink and that the problems are now administrative.
“As soon as we get a B operator, I believe everything will be cleared up,” he said. “We give [residents] the boil notice every month because we have to and they have never shown any real concern.”
While local leaders equivocate, outside agencies have finally spread the message in Toyah that residents should drink bottled water or boil their tap water. The EPA hosted a public meeting in December 2022 to answer questions.
“EPA has met with members of the Toyah community, and provided them with TCEQ’s investigation report,” the EPA Region 6 office said in a brief statement. “We have continued to engage the city, TCEQ and the Texas Water Development Board.”
U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, a Republican whose district includes Toyah and a large swath of southwest Texas, did not respond to a request for comment. Several Toyah residents said they had contacted Gonzales’ office for help with the water situation.
Toyah was recently added to the district of state Sen. César Blanco (D-El Paso). Blanco has reached out to TCEQ and TWDB to discuss how to bring Toyah into compliance.
“As the new senator for Reeves County, I will continue working with state agencies and local leaders to address the needs of residents in Toyah and Reeves County,” he said.
Those Who Drink the Water and Those Who Don’t
In January, Reeves County began distributing drinking water in Toyah on Wednesday mornings. More than four years into the boil water notice, it is the first effort to provide residents with an alternative water source.
On a clear February morning, county employees were in Toyah distributing water. There weren’t many takers. The pallet of water bottles remained nearly intact in a warehouse.
While state regulators issued violations, many residents didn’t catch wind of what bureaucrats in Austin were saying. Or instead they chose to trust people like Mayor Hoyt and Puckett, who say the water is safe to drink. Over the years, residents split into two camps: those who drink the water and those who don’t.
“I drink my water because I don’t see anything wrong with the water,” said Loretta Campos, who at 93 is the oldest resident of Toyah. “I really don’t know what this is all about.”
It’s not just about the water. To some residents, the water crisis—whether they think it’s real or imagined—feels like the final blow to the struggling town whose past glories related to the railroad have long passed.
But lifelong residents like Angel look back fondly on growing up in Toyah and roaming the quiet streets with cousins and neighbors. Families grew vegetable gardens with the water that long-time residents described as soft and delicious.
“Back when I was young, everybody was tight,” Angel remembered. “The neighbors would help each other out.”
Now there aren’t many kids left in town. Of the families that remain some have been divided over the water issue. Angel and her cousin Naomi are no longer on speaking terms. The Hogans are living in New Mexico while Donna recovers from a surgery. Her doctor advised against drinking Toyah water while she was convalescing.
But for Angel Machuca, Toyah is still home and she can’t imagine leaving.
She keeps waiting for the day the state will confirm the water is safe to drink.