Marfa Public Radio produced a three-part series focused on going water issues in Toyah, Texas. Below is a complication that series. These stories were reported and produced in collaboration with Martha Pskowski, a reporter at Inside Climate News.
On the edge of the West Texas oil fields, just west of Pecos, lies the small town of Toyah — a community that’s been long defined by its water.
Its name most likely comes from an Apache word for water. Its best years were a century ago when it was a water stop for the railroad.
Now, Toyah has a population of less than 100. Water for residents travels about 35 miles through a pipeline from a distant mountain spring. As idyllic as that may sound, the city's actually been under a boil water notice for almost five years.
Longtime resident Elida ‘Angel’ Machuca has vivid memories of how the water tasted when she was growing up.
“I remember the water being really clear and really clean. Almost sweet like — it was just good,” she reminisced. “Now, it comes out really yellow at times…or like red clay dirty mud.”
It was June of 2018 when Angel first realized there were major water issues. Back then, she was on the city council, and a city official called her in a panic, saying a potentially dangerous bacteria had been found in the water.
Angel explained, “She’s like, ‘I need your help, we have E. coli in the system.”
Angel immediately began passing out flyers telling residents that, to stay safe, they needed to boil their water before drinking it. While she was spreading the word though she began to wonder, “What’s actually going on with our water.”
What Angel didn’t know at the time was that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, the agency that regulates drinking water in the state, had been finding problems left and right at Toyah’s water treatment plant.
Instead of telling residents the whole story, Angel claims, local officials like her cousin Toyah Mayor Pro Tem Namoi Machuca would say things were fine.
“Mayor Pro Tem Machuca would say, ‘Oh, TCEQ said we were doing such a wonderful job,’ but the city was getting enforcement orders,” Angel said. “The city was getting fines. All this [sic] type of documents from TCEQ, and she wasn't giving them to the council members.”
Naomi has helped lead Toyah for over a decade on the city council. She didn’t want to sit down for an interview for this story, but Naomi shared this brief comment: “The only statement I would like to say is that I stand by my employees, I stand by the few volunteers we have, and that we do the best we can with what we got.”
Angel refuses to accept the local government is doing everything to provide safe drinking water to residents. Even though her term on city council eventually ended, she hasn’t given up the fight.
“After that E. coli incident, I decided I'm going to investigate all this. I'm going to start asking questions, regardless of who likes it or not,” Angel said.
Donna Hogan moved to town around 2018 and opened up a diner called the Lazy S Sisters. She noticed the water was sometimes dirty and smelled. So, she went to the city about her concerns, but Hogan claims she was told, “Nothing is wrong with it. It’s good — drink it.”
But problems at the city’s water treatment plant have been extensive and well documented — ranging from equipment breaking, unqualified staff running the facility and raw-untreated water mixing with drinking water.
Hogan ended up serving on Toyah’s city council too, and claims the city stalled efforts to address the situation.
“They just keep breaking the law, the same with water,” she said. “They don't want to be honest about it. They don't want to tell people about it.”
Years dragged on but the boil water notice was never lifted and is still in place today. Hogan ended up closing her restaurant.
She said, “I’m not a person for vengeance, but with the council we have right now, the water will never be good — I guarantee you.”
Toyah Mayor Gordon Hoyt isn’t worried about the local water though.
“All I can really say is that I drink the water,” he said. “I'm drinking the water right now as a matter of fact mixed with Kool-Aid.”
He became Toyah’s mayor this year and says most people around town don’t put a lot of stock in the boil water notice and concerns around the community’s drinking water.
According to the mayor, “We have a very small number of people that have caused a tremendous amount of grief. It’s just sad because most people don’t want to deal with those individuals.”
The town’s split into two camps, those who drink the water and those who don’t. Angel’s firmly in the latter. Around her house, you can see plastic jugs she’s collected over the years for her family to haul in water from a nearby city.
Angel said, “I think we go to Pecos every three or four days just for water.”
She’s even concerned about bathing in local water. People have blamed it for rashes, severe bacterial infections, and digestive issues. So she doesn’t want to take any chances, which has been expensive over the years.
According to Angel, she’s had to spend at times around $200 a month buying water. Reeves County started to distribute free water once a week to help locals mitigate that cost, but few have taken advantage of this resource.
Recently, Angel and I took a trip out to Toyah’s water treatment plant to get a better sense of what’s been going on with the city’s water. Driving down gravel county roads, two water towers emerge from the mesquite.
Angel comes out here periodically to check if things have changed at the facility.
A decrepit wooden sign hangs on the plant’s front gate. There’s junk spread out over the fenced-in yard — trash, old equipment and pipes left out. “It looks like a messy yard,” Angel said, “it just looks like it’s not maintained properly.”
To this day, she’s still reaching out to basically anyone who may take Toyah’s water problems seriously. The TCEQ has launched dozens of investigations over the years, but until recently the state largely left residents to fend for themselves.
According to Angel, “If TCEQ would have done their job from the very beginning and put a stop to it — we would not be in this situation.”
Last September, though, the state did file a lawsuit to take over Toyah’s water system. According to court documents, the continued mismanagement of the city’s water poses a “serious threat of harm” to residents.
The case is still open and the people who’ve controlled Toyah’s water for years are still in place.
Local leaders claim the water is fine
The question of whether to drink the water or not in Toyah is a hot-button issue.
Reports of rancid water flowing out of taps contrast with city officials claiming the water is safe. Still, the dwindling West Texas community, about 20 miles west of Pecos, has been on a boil water notice for nearly five years.
Despite the problems in Toyah, Olga Lopez dreams of moving back to her hometown to spend her golden years. Standing in her family’s home near the train tracks, memories of her childhood come flooding back to her.
“I look out here and I can see where we had our pigs and the chickens roaming around freely,” Lopez said. “Why can't I have that now? One thing, the water.”
Lopez takes the boil water notice seriously, but she doesn’t want to stay away too long. She has plans to raise her own chickens here someday. She’s even bought a large tank to haul in water if things aren’t cleared up soon.
Some residents worry that the water may be so hazardous that it may not be safe to bathe in. There have been reports of rashes and serious bacterial infections people believe are the result of coming into contact with the water.
“I want to be able to come over here maybe on the weekend, and make me a fresh pot of coffee and sit outside and reminisce,” she explained.
Her parents have passed away, so this place is important to her. Looking around her property, thinking about the future she could have if the water were safe, she said, “Doesn’t hurt to dream, right.”
Late last year, the Texas Attorney General’s office filed a lawsuit against Toyah to take over the city’s water system. Court documents cite concerns over mismanagement and list over 30 violations of state drinking water rules.
While the lawsuit moves through the courts, the city is still in control of its water. At this time, 70-year-old Ed Puckett is helping run Toyah’s water treatment plant. He’s a retired contractor who volunteers his time to keep the city’s water flowing.
“I want you to come see the plant,” Puckett told me over the phone. “I want you to understand this is not amateur hour.”
While touring the facility, he pointed out how Toyah’s water is cleaned and sanitized.
Puckett said the city’s water problems — reports of discolored water and noxious smells coming from water taps — are a thing of the past. Claiming one of the only problems right now is the water is sometimes “too clean.”
The state of the treatment plant is a stark comparison to his description though. The building is shabby. Its thin metal walls bang with every gust of wind. There are holes in the building where animals can get in and hanging electrical wires — but Puckett keeps up his pitch.
Pointing out a meter that measures the cloudiness of water, he said, “This is almost pure, it’s really, really close.” The meter showed the water was just barely meeting state standards.
Toyah gets its water from a spring miles away that bubbles up in a cow pasture. Cattle and other wildlife have access to the stream before it travels to the treatment plant — making it really important it is cleaned properly.
To prove it's safe, Puckett walks outside to pour a glass right from a tank. “It tastes good too,” he said with a smile.
There has been a long list of issues facing the facility and the town, which Puckett doesn’t deny. For years, the facility’s filtration unit didn’t work properly, forcing the community to use an illegal filter. At times city staff had to pour gallons of bleach into the drinking water to sanitize it because chlorine levels were so low.
According to Puckett, the cause of most of the city’s problems was a series of pipes that had been hidden for years.
“This had more to do with the quality of our drinking water in the last 15 years than anything else,” he said, pointing to a patch of dirt where the pipes were buried.
In 2021, a buried cross-connection was discovered — it had been funneling untreated water into the town’s clean drinking water.
Puckett explained, “When we found this and took out all of this section of pipe, the quality of our water improved 1,000%.”
Toyah’s current water operator, Brandie Baker, didn’t want to be interviewed for this story. But Puckett said she’s the “most qualified water operator” the town has ever had.
Baker does not have the proper license to run Toyah’s water system, which locals and state regulators have raised as a concern. Since 2018, the state has required Toyah to have a Class B Surface Water Operator, but Baker has failed that licensing exam twice.
Still, Puckett is convinced if she can pass that one test, Toyah’s water will be recognized as safe to drink by regulators. According to him, “We fixed everything that is broken, and we are producing beautiful water. Now we have to fix the bureaucracy part of this and get us off the boil notice.”
At least two qualified water operators have offered their services to Toyah over the years, but local leaders continue to trust Baker and Puckett to run its water system. Puckett bristles at the thought of the state coming in to take over the treatment plant.
“You've seen it, it's working. We're making good water. There's hardly anything that needs to be done at this point,” He said.
Some very vocal residents disagree and are worried Toyah’s water may still pose a health risk. A large swath of the town however continues to drink the city's water.
“I don't see anything wrong with the water,” said Loretta Campos. “I really don't know what this is all about. “
Toyah’s population is less than 100, and at 93 years old, Campos is the oldest person in the town. The water here has always been one of her favorite things about living here.
“We have very good water, actually sweet, very sweet,” she described.
Despite the boil water notice, she’s continued to use local water. She said, she doesn’t think about the presence of dangerous bacteria or other contaminants — if the water is clear she’s not concerned.
Campos said, “I just drink it and, and that's it. I don't think about it. Maybe I'm trusting too much, but I don't have any problems.”
If there was something to worry about, she believes someone she could trust would have told her. Still, people are working right now to get Toyah reliable safe drinking water, whether Campos and other residents like it or not.
State regulators hesitated to act
It's still dark outside when Angel Machuca opens the door for students from the University of Texas at Austin's environmental clinic. They're at her mom and dad's house in Toyah to collect water samples.
"It's exciting that they are going to test our water," Machuca said, clearly worn by the boil water notice she and the nearly 100 other residents in Toyah have lived under for the last five years.
In that time, the small town -- just off I-20 in West Texas -- has split into two camps: those who don't believe the water's safe and those who do, which includes local leaders who continue to claim the water is fine despite reports of rashes, bacterial infections and noticeably dirty water coming out of taps. And all of that is part of why these students are here.
On the list of things they’re measuring for is lead, copper, legionella and turbidity, or the clarity of the water. Samples are collected from the kitchen sink and the shower. Today the water looks clear, but that doesn’t mean it's clean.
The community has a record of failing to meet drinking water standards. To this day, there’s evidence that the city struggles to properly clean its water and that residents have been exposed to excessive amounts of trihalomethanes, chemicals produced by sanitizing water with chlorine.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, long-term exposure to high levels of these chemicals can increase the risk of cancer and cause kidney, liver and nervous system problems.
“You wonder, am I going to die in the next two years – not from a car accident – but am I gonna die because of the contamination of the water and this is my fate?” Machuca said.
The environmental clinic’s part of UT’s law school where students advocate for underserved communities, like Toyah. It’s all done under Kelly Haragan’s supervision. She directs the clinic and is an attorney that specializes in environmental law.
Her assessment of the water is blunt: “People should not be drinking the water in Toyah.”
Her reasoning spans health concerns, a history of water contamination to unqualified staff running the city’s water treatment plant.
She said, “I think people are entitled to a lot more than just gambling that the water looks ok and drinking it.”
Haragan’s team found that in the last decade the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, has reported over 400 violations and launched multiple investigations into Toyah’s water system, but the agency was slow to respond.
“I think the TCEQ thought, ‘We want to help them but we aren’t going to come down on them.” She continued, “The reality is they needed to come down on them because the city wasn’t going to resolve it.”
The TCEQ didn’t provide comment for this story, but looking back at their past meetings you can see this play out. In 2021, Ed Puckett, a volunteer at the city’s water treatment plant, called in to give the TCEQ commissioners an update.
Puckett said, “The plant is being turned on later today for the first time in three years. We have spent every dime Toyah had available on the water plant.”
At this time, the facility’s water filtration unit had been shut down for years forcing the community to use an illegal filter. And despite the city receiving a $200,000 grant for repairs and improvements, the plant still had major problems.
According to Puckett, the small town couldn’t keep up with state penalties. “This town has 30 connections. There’s no way we can afford to pay any kind of fines when the money needs to go to the repairs at the plant,” he said.
Commissioner Jon Niermann was sympathetic to Puckett and told other commissioners that it's incredibly hard for small water systems to support themselves and meet state requirements.
“Let me not say that it’s impossible, let me just say – because I’m an optimist – it is very very challenging,” Niermann explained.
So TCEQ cut Toyah some slack.
“I think I want to give this city an opportunity to prove it up. It sounds like they are right on the cusp.” He continued, “They’ve got water samples, they are turning it on today…, [let’s] see how it goes.”
But by late 2022, about a year after this meeting, the state would file a lawsuit to take over Toyah’s water system. Court documents detail continued mismanagement which could place Toyah residents in danger. However, at this time, the city is still in control of its water system.
Haragan believes the state should have taken Toyah to court sooner — but there’s a bigger question on her mind right now.
“Whoever is making those decisions is still going to have to figure out what the long-term solution is,” she said. “They've either got to make the repairs and fix that plant, at least for the short term and probably find a longer-term solution.”
Haragan is hopeful — her team is researching things like additional funding, drilling groundwater wells or hooking Toyah up to a better-run water system. All of those options would need local officials to cooperate.
According to her though, “It seems like they want to keep tight control of [the water treatment] plant. And I don't really understand why.”
But, she’s adamant something has to be done.
“The town is dying and it's not surprising because if you don’t have good drinking water people aren’t going to stay — but in this case, I think we could fix it,” she said.
After gathering up their samples, Haragan and her team head out. But they left behind testing supplies so Angel Machuca’s father, Jesse Sanchez, and the rest of their family can monitor the water.
“It gets to the point where you’re tired most of the day and every time you’re gonna do something you start thinking about it,” he said. “What’s in the water? What’s gonna happen, To me, my kids four years, five years from now? It runs you down.”
After years of advocating for clean drinking water, Sanchez said friends and neighbors have turned against them. Sitting by her husband, Elda Sanchez tried to explain their motivation.
She said, “You know we’re not bad people. Yeah, we want people to know not to drink it. We’re trying to help everybody else.”
Critics of their efforts discount their claims by bringing up their late son Bart Sanchez, who was the town’s mayor and water operator for years. He pled guilty to wire fraud and aggravated identity theft in 2013 and served time in prison for stealing approximately $100,000 from Toyah. He died in 2021 due to complications with COVID-19 , according to the family.
At the Sanchez home, the water at times comes out muddy, has burned their eyes and irritated their skin. The family has been through a lot but Elda is hopeful that, “When the water gets fixed and everything gets normal again, I think that’s when we’ll start healing.”
The results from the environmental clinic’s testing eventually came back, and nothing major was found that day. Still, Haragan said the findings did show that the boil water notice needs to be taken seriously.
She explained, “It doesn’t mean that at every single moment, there’s something coming out of their tap that is unsafe. It just means there’s no quality assurance.”
For Jesse, he won’t trust the local water until the state lifts the boil water notice and dependable, trustworthy people are running the plant.
“I want this to be over, I don’t know how much longer this is going to last. Hopefully not for another year. I want to take a good shower,” he said.
It’s hard to say when that will be possible. The state’s case against Toyah is ongoing. And reports of dirty water continue to flow in, leaving residents in the small desert town to decide, day after day if they’re willing to risk drinking or bathing in the water.
Editor’s Note: Marfa Public Radio consulted Nakaya Flotte, an ethnographer and applied anthropologist who holds a doctorate in sociocultural anthropology, to understand the origin of Toyah’s name.