Nobody has ever paid for water in Candelaria,” says Marion Walker. Since 1947, when she and her sister, Nell Howard, moved to the remote town fifty miles northwest of Presidio, Walker explains, they have let their neighbors use water from their well. It’s the only well in town. But now, because of problems with state regulators, the sisters are cutting off the water to the church, the school, and 23 families.

Every evening for decades the residents of the tiny Presidio County town have filled their water bottles at the spigot behind Walker and Howard’s general store. But last April, the octogenarian sisters received a letter from the Texas Department of Health, informing them that they were operating a public water supply and that the water was teeming with bacteria. Next they got a letter from the Environmental Protection Agency (addressed to the Howard Water Supply), telling them that they could be fined up to $25,000 per day if they continued to give away water. Now the state health department wants the sisters to submit monthly water samples for bacterial testing. Walker and Howard have refused—they don’t have the time or the money to send the samples, nor do they want to comply with regulations requiring them to add chlorine to their water.

“If we don’t give these people water, they’ll have to get it out of the river,” says Walker. That is the only source of water for most communities along the river, even though Ojinaga and other Mexican cities continue to dump raw sewage into the waterway.

A solution is in sight. The county recently got a $250,000 grant from the Texas Department of Commerce to build a water system to supply Candelaria, and construction will begin early this year. But in mid-November, fearing further bureaucratic entanglements, Walker shut off the water to the school and the church. Presidio school district officials responded by agreeing to supply bottled drinking water until the new water system is completed. Fernando Rico, from the health department’s El Paso office, admits that enforcing the regulations has caused problems. “Ms. Howard wants to be left alone,” he said. “But if they are going to give water to the school, it is our job to make sure the water is safe for the kids.”

Candelaria residents like the water from Walker and Howard’s well: “It tastes good,” they say. But the days of free water are over. Once the new system is complete, families will pay about $10 a month for bacteria-free water. County judge Monroe Elms says, “Candelaria is about to join the twentieth century.”