After first local Zika transmission, state and local officials must act to protect Rio Grande Valley

Josué Ramírez, Texas Housers Rio Grande Valley director
Josué Ramírez, Texas Housers Rio Grande Valley director

The first local transmission of the Zika virus in the state of Texas, and just the second in the country, has been confirmed in the Rio Grande Valley. The news is a wake-up call for county and state officials, who must now quickly address conditions that increase the risk that Zika will spread ­in the Valley – especially the chronic lack of adequate drainage infrastructure that leads to standing water, the ideal breeding ground for disease-carrying mosquitos.

A local transmission in the Valley was all but inevitable given the region’s geography, climate and, most alarmingly, critical public health failures in low income communities. Experts believe that other cases of the virus may already be present but unreported in the area.

The Zika virus threatens all Valley residents, because mosquitos do not stay where they breed. Due to substandard drainage infrastructure in colonias, those communities are the front lines for mosquito-borne epidemics such as Zika and dengue fever. Texas Housers has partnered with colonia advocacy organizations A Resource In Serving Equality (ARISE) and La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) on a campaign to help colonia residents live in safety and dignity free from chronic flooding. While some progress has been made, much more remains to be done, and time is of the essence.

Some state officials, including State Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr. and Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) chairman Bech Bruun, are leading an effort to improve unsafe colonia drainage conditions. With our partners, we collaborated with TWDB on a comprehensive drainage assessment that outlines the basic drainage conditions for 403 of the most flood-prone colonias in the Valley. The results include detailed preliminary suggestions for addressing the drainage in colonias where structure and nuisance flooding occur.

In October, Chairman Bruun and Senator Lucio toured some of the colonias in the study (pictured at top), spoke with residents about their experiences with flooding and met with various staff from Hidalgo and Cameron Counties. TWDB presented a variety of funding sources, including the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund, Emergency Relief Funding and Disadvantaged Funding, for which a county could apply to develop projects recommended in the colonia drainage study.

We commend Chairman Bruun and Senator Lucio for their leadership, but local officials must now take advantage of available resources by utilizing the TWDB study and applying for federal and state funds to reduce flooding and standing water problems in colonias. The State Department of Health Services must also step up their monitoring of the virus by placing more mosquito traps and conducting more regular testing in the communities with standing water, which are most at risk of Zika.

Local transmission of the Zika virus is here. State and local officials must recognize that the inadequate drainage and flooding in colonias will continuously put Texans at risk of Zika and other devastating mosquito-borne diseases unless real action is taken. Working with TWDB and the available resources at the state and federal level is a critical first step to finally solving the problem.