NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
KERA's One Crisis Away project focuses on North Texans living on the financial edge.

In One Corner Of Dallas County, 100 People Live Without Running Water

Some communities hover over the financial edge, while others have completely fallen off. Sandbranch, an unincorporated corner of Dallas County, is one of them. Residents there have no internet, no trash pickup and no running water. 

They rely on donations, creativity and community spirit to survive.

Nobody in Sandbranch has a running faucet. A lucky few have wells and small tanks in the backyard. They use that water to flush toilets, maybe wash some clothes. Even when the water is boiled, it’s not drinkable.

Pastor Eugene Keahey twists the top off the water tank at Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, the one remaining community institution here, to reveal green algae in patches the size of a phone book.

That’s why, Keahey explains, this water isn’t for drinking, just for flushing. And that pretty much sums up life in Sandbranch.

“It’s off the grid. It’s a Third World country," he says. "Because water is gold here, it’s precious.”

Credit Courtney Collins / KERA news
KERA news
Algae inside the Mount Zion church water tank.

Just Miles From Downtown Dallas

While this neighborhood feels worlds away from the hustle of the big city, the glittering Dallas skyline is just a short drive away. It's 18 miles southeast of downtown, and a couple miles west of Seagoville. 

Sandbranch is surrounded by development, but it's virtually undeveloped.

“Each home here was hand built by the community; there was no outside, general contractors, and this land has been in their families for years," Keahey says. "So they have a strong connection to the land and to the community.”

Dallas County has records of Sandbranch dating back to the 1930s. Keahey says families settled here not long after slavery ended.

Flood Plain Relocation

About a decade ago, Dallas County moved 36 families out of Sandbranch because their homes were in a flood zone.

Now the community has dwindled to just over a hundred people scattered across nine blocks. And those residents still don’t have water or trash service.

“How can they move when their income is $721 a month? When they have no internet, how do you find an apartment, how do you find a home? How do you save up for the down payment of a new house?" Keahey wonders.

The remaining residents of Sandbranch have to be creative.

Some bring jugs of water home from work; others fill up at relatives' homes.

Inside A Neighborhood Where Water Is Precious

Credit Courtney Collins
Alvin Batts has lived in Sandbranch since the 1960s.

Alvin Batts has lived here for half a century. He hauls five-gallon bottles to his mom’s house down the street to stock up on non-potable water from her tank.

For drinking water, it’s a different story.

“When we got a little money we go to the store and we buy water," Batts says. "We’ve been trying to get water down here for awhile.”

The Dallas County health department says the vast majority of well water in Sandbranch is undrinkable.

Attempts to annex the community into Dallas have all failed, and in the early 2000s, a push to build a grant-funded water system was shut down, too. The project would have cost a few million dollars, and at the time, half the community would have been underwater in a major flood.

As a result, folks in Sandbranch brush their teeth with bottled water, and burn trash in the backyard. In 2015.

“I mean we have more of don’t-haves, than we actually have," Keahey says.

Seeds Of Hope

Even so, Keahey soldiers on. The North Texas Food Bank and other nonprofits send over drinking water whenever they have it. And several plots of land were just donated to the community for an urban farm.

Seeds of hope, sprouting in a neighborhood that could use some. 

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.