This Texas City’s Water Crisis Is Shaping A Democratic Congressional Primary

Days before Texas’ Democratic primary elections on March 1, congressional candidate Jessica Cisneros was shuttling back and forth to a friend’s house to shower and draw water for cooking.

An estimated 125,000 Laredo residents had to boil their tap water for 13 days after the city’s main water line ruptured in late February. Cisneros and her family were part of a smaller subset of residents whose water was shut off completely for five days.

Laredo has issued a water boil notice six times since September 2019 for some or all residents because the local government was unable to guarantee the water’s safety.

The final pre-election disruption added a layer of inconvenience to Cisneros’ packed campaign schedule.

But it also reinforced her reasons for challenging nine-term U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar for the Democratic nomination in Texas’ 28th Congressional District.

“He’s had 17, 18 years to show the improvements in the community that he’s been able to accomplish in his tenure,” Cisneros told HuffPost. “But we don’t even have water here.”

Coverage of Cisneros’ two runs against the more conservative Cuellar — he defeated her by less than four percentage points in 2020 — has understandably focused on the two Democrats’ major ideological and policy differences.

But HuffPost’s conversations with voters in Texas’ 28th suggest that their opinions of Cuellar’s tenure and their relative appetite for change were more important indicators of their candidate preference than ideology.

Now, as Cisneros prepares to face Cuellar in a May 24 runoff — neither candidate obtained an outright majority on March 1 — she is making the lack of consistent drinking water in Laredo, both candidates’ hometown, a central part of her argument that the district needs new representation.

Although the federal government is obviously not responsible for Laredo’s water infrastructure, a core component of Cuellar’s pitch to voters is that his seat on the House Appropriations Committee has brought the struggling district a steady flow of much-needed federal dollars, she noted.

“Where’s that money going to?” Cisneros asked. “Because half of the city of Laredo didn’t have running water” as voters were casting ballots in Cuellar’s reelection race.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) maintains that his perch on the House Appropriations Committee has ensured Laredo federal funding for its aging water infrastructure.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press

Cisneros has also seized on comments that Cuellar made that appeared to downplay his influence over local policymaking. Earlier this month, Cuellar told the Laredo Morning Times that while he would like to secure the city more federal funds to update the city’s water infrastructure, his influence over the local government is limited.

“That’s a local issue,” Cuellar said. “City Council should have done the replacement for many years, they just never did.”

To Cisneros, that answer doesn’t cut it.

“Being a congressperson isn’t just about what you vote on,” Cisneros said. “It’s about being a leader and making sure that you’re generating pressure, bringing attention to issues, and making the effort to talk to voters directly about what their needs are and what the person in office can do to make sure those needs are met.”

Asked by HuffPost to respond to Cisneros’ criticisms, Cuellar’s office provided a lengthy statement from Cuellar documenting both the federal funding he has acquired for Laredo’s water infrastructure and his efforts to coordinate with the local government.

In the statement, Cuellar touted his work securing the appropriation of $35 million for the renovation of Laredo’s Jefferson Water Treatment Plant in 2013 and claimed credit for helping ensure that the government of Laredo received $95 million from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan relief bill. He also said he voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill that provided the state of Texas with $30 billion in funding, from which Laredo could benefit.

In addition, Cuellar pointed out that he has been in frequent contact with the head of San Antonio’s water authority, who has been advising Laredo on restoring clean water during the recent boil notices. Cuellar also said that he and his team have spoken often to Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz (D), city council members and their staffs about opportunities to apply for federal funding that might help the city update its water system.

“Congressman Cuellar not only has secured hundreds of millions of dollars to address the Laredo water issue, but has worked with the City directly to apply for eligible funding,” Cuellar said in a statement. “Congressman Cuellar will continue to be in constant contact with the Mayor and the City to work hand in hand to solve this local issue.”

Jessica Cisneros, center, is running to Cuellar's left on a host of issues. But a central part of her pitch to voters is a call for new leadership amid persistent problems.
Jessica Cisneros, center, is running to Cuellar’s left on a host of issues. But a central part of her pitch to voters is a call for new leadership amid persistent problems.

Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Cisneros has also sought to connect Laredo’s water struggles to Cuellar’s record of siding with the fossil-fuel industry against clean water regulation. In February 2017, mere days after then-President Donald Trump took office, Cuellar was one of just four House Democrats to vote in favor of overturning a federal rule aimed at protecting streams from coal mining waste.

While the rule likely would have made some forms of coal mining not economically viable, the rule’s defenders pointed to research showing it would also reduce the presence of contaminants in some regions’ sources of drinking water. Amy Travieso, a former Cuellar deputy chief of staff-turned-U.S. Chamber of Commerce lobbyist, lobbied for passage of the law overturning the rule.

Asked why Cuellar’s support for a bill that only affected coal-mining regions was relevant to his record in Texas’ 28th, Cisneros told HuffPost it spoke to his callous approach to clean drinking water overall.

“If he’s willing to sell out the basic needs of those communities — drinkable, safe water — what would he do for this area as well?” she said.

The Cuellar campaign did not respond to a request for a response to Cisneros’ criticism of the 2017 vote.

As with any complicated infrastructure issue, there is no single explanation for Laredo’s water troubles.

On the one hand, the city’s water challenges appear to stem from a lack of resources. The water line that ruptured in February is more than 50 years old. Replacing the central water pipes and tanks in just the city’s core areas would cost $500 million, according to Saenz, Laredo’s mayor.

But several previous water boil notices were due to a lack of adequate chlorination of the water supply rather than a break in the water pipe.

Laredo, Texas, a city on the U.S.-Mexican border, has struggled with a high poverty rate. Some residents of the city's less-prosperous south side feel neglected by the city government.
Laredo, Texas, a city on the U.S.-Mexican border, has struggled with a high poverty rate. Some residents of the city’s less-prosperous south side feel neglected by the city government.

SUZANNE CORDEIRO/Getty Images

Some Laredoans, including a group of frustrated residents who have formed the grassroots group AGUAS — an acronym that spells out “waters” in Spanish and translates to “Action of People United for Safe Water” — blame local mismanagement and corruption as well.

They accuse the city government of failing to treat the problem with sufficient urgency in part because it disproportionately affects Laredo’s less-prosperous south side and the unincorporated “colonia” communities east of the city that lack representation on the city council.

AGUAS has asked the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, to penalize the city government for failing to notify residents about the low chlorine levels within 24 hours of the state agency confirming that a water boil notice was necessary in September 2019.

“Our one-dollar bill — it has the same value in the barrios as it has in other areas of Laredo, which are much wealthier and are better developed,” said Carlos Blanco, an AGUAS activist who has stopped drinking tap water altogether.

Blanco would not say whether he prefers Cuellar or Cisneros.

But Cuellar’s detractors believe that the congressman, who is also a former Texas state representative and Texas secretary of state, could use his considerable influence to facilitate greater changes in local governance.

Not just an ordinary federal lawmaker, Cuellar’s roots in Laredo run so deep that he is sometimes called the “King of Laredo.” His brother Martin is the longtime sheriff of Webb County, where Laredo is located, and his sister Rosie served as county tax assessor.

The Cuellar family has “done some good for the community,” said Verennise Arellano, a Laredo school teacher who cited the water issues as part of the reason why she supported Cisneros in both 2020 and 2022. “But it gets to the point where you don’t see any change anymore, where everyone is complacent.”

Arellano is not exactly a card-carrying leftist. Despite the availability of more progressive candidates, she voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, and Joe Biden in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

She is instead motivated by a desire for change, even if it means taking a chance on someone without experience in elected office.

“We need to have a fresh person,” Arellano said. “Maybe we’re wrong — Jessica might not be the person we’re looking for. But we need the change. We need to see it.”

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