Community With No Running Water Tries To Move On After Pastor’s Suspicious Death | KERA News

Community With No Running Water Tries To Move On After Pastor’s Suspicious Death

Apr 9, 2019

Sandbranch, an unincorporated community in southeast Dallas County, doesn't have running water. And the man who fought so hard to change that, Pastor Eugene Keahey, was killed in a house fire.

Driving to Sandbranch is surreal. In addition to no running water — not even well water is safe to drink — there's no sewer service and no internet access. Folks burn their trash, because nobody's coming to collect it.

The population has dwindled to about 100. It's very quiet.

It's almost impossible to believe downtown Dallas is less than 20 miles away.

Mary Nash, in front of her childhood home in Sandbranch.
Credit Courtney Collins / KERA News

"Sandbranch is still home to me," says Mary Nash, who grew up in the community. "It's a place where people still love everybody. But as the years have progressed on, it has deteriorated."

When Nash was a girl, people pumped their own drinking water. These days, the well water in this mostly black neighborhood is so contaminated that they have to drink bottled water, or nothing.

Keahey, pastor of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, was working desperately to change that.

“It's off the grid. It’s a Third World country. Because water is gold here, it's precious," Pastor Keahey told KERA three years ago.

Just over a month ago, the pastor, his wife and two daughters died in a house fire. The community is reeling.

"Pastor Keahey meant everything. He meant survival," said Mark McPherson, an attorney who's been working with the Sandbranch Development and Water Supply Corporation for three years. "He brought the Texas Food Bank down here. He brought national attention to Sandbranch, because so many people didn't know there was a place a few miles away from Dallas that doesn't have running water."

The house fire that killed the Keahey family is considered suspicious and is under investigation. No word yet on how it started. The Dallas County medical examiner is also trying to determine cause of death.

McPherson says you can't just plug someone else into the void left by Pastor Keahey.

"He was a champion for Sandbranch," he said. "If you get something like this, you've got to have a champion that buys in hook, line and sinker to the whole thing, and he sure did that."

"He brought the Texas Food Bank down here. He brought national attention to Sandbranch, because so many people didn't know there was a place a few miles away from Dallas that doesn't have running water."

The water issue in Sandbranch is so complex, McPherson says, that having one foot in and one foot out doesn't work. That's why progress was finally made when Keahey came along. On Keahey's watch, Sandbranch was awarded a grant that paid for engineers to evaluate the best water options for the community.

The verdict?

“Enter into [a] contract with Dallas Water Utilities. Because there's water service just about a half mile up Belt Line Road from where we are," McPherson says. "So it's just a simple main line extension right down Belt Line, and then a conveyance system of smaller pipes through the community."

And while that might be a simple plan, it isn't cheap: $6.5 million.

Coming up with $6.5 million might seem impossible for a poor community of 100 people. McPherson and Nash say it's not.

If the Texas Water Development Board awards a 25% grant, McPherson says the U.S. Department of Agriculture should fund the rest. Sandbranch will have a better idea of how chances look by August.

Nash, for one, is confident.

"It's not a 'think,'" she said. "I know water's on the way. No doubt in my mind."

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So community advocates are pressing forward, even though they're down one devoted public servant.

"While the work goes on though, you sure do miss the person," McPherson said of Keahey. "He was just so — he was a lot of fun. He was so charismatic and he really had a very beautiful vision."

It was a vision to see life breathed back into this community, a place where sun filters through the trees and birds are the noisiest neighbors.

Eugene Keahey's vision started with running water in every house. The people who love Sandbranch refuse to let him down.