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Will Houston’s recent water woes prompt changes to the state’s aging infrastructure?

 Houston ISD says all schools, offices, facilities will be closed Monday due to the boil water notice.
Steve Johnson
/
via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
A boil water notice that affected millions of Texans in the state’s largest metropolitan area should spark a renewed interest in updating the state’s aging water infrastructure, policy experts said.

A boil water notice that affected millions of Texans in the state’s largest metropolitan area should spark a renewed interest in updating the state’s aging water infrastructure, policy experts said.

On Sunday Houston issued a boil water notice after a power outage caused pressure levels at a purification plant to drop. The notice was in effect until Tuesday morning, and it was determined that the power outage was caused by “city’s equipment” and not related to the company’s systems, the Houston Chronicle reported. The city hasn’t elaborated on the details.

The boil notice drew national attention because of its scale. But like the deadly 2021 winter storm drew attention to the electric grid, the boil notice may inspire cities and state lawmakers to look at their own water infrastructure — things like pipes, filtration systems, power sources and sewer lines — and consider whether updates are necessary to avoid future problems.

“The state has obviously paid a lot of attention to where there are opportunities for improvement in the energy sector. But from the water sector, we need to equally be investing in it,” said Sarah Rountree Schlessinger, the chief executive officer at the Texas Water Foundation, a non-partisan, nonprofit organization.

“Something that I'm very comfortable saying is, yes, Texas does have an aging and fragile infrastructure. And yes, we need to be thinking as a state about opportunities to continually invest in that,” she added.

What causes a boil water notice?

Several issues can trigger a boil water notice. Some are not necessarily due to contamination but instead the potential for contamination, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Triggers that can lead to a boil water notice include low pressure, water outages, line repairs or breaks, storage issues, well problems and power outages.

Michael Lewis, the clean air and water advocate at Environment Texas, a nonprofit organization that studies environmental issues across the state, said he hoped that the focus on Texas’ water infrastructure after the incident in Houston doesn’t get lost in a discussion about energy.

“The fact of the matter is that some of our infrastructure is old [and] it gets overshadowed by things like power and streets. People don't think about the water until it actually backs up or stops working,” he said. “We absolutely [need to work in the power grid] as well. But … our maintenance systems, whether they be septic or drinking water, are older. They're starting to deteriorate.”

Schlessinger said that Texas does a better job than other states on water investment and infrastructure. Since 2015, the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas, or SWIFT, has allocated $9.2 billion in financial assistance about 60 recommended water project, according to the Texas Comptroller’s office.

But a boil water notice that affects millions of people shouldn’t be standard.

“Circumstances are changing both in terms of water availability because of climate change,” she said. “Circumstances are changing because of where population growth is occurring. And systems are also changing because of what the ratepayer base is able to afford — or not able to afford — or what the community is able to afford in order to continually invest in having that diversified, resilient water infrastructure.”

Lewis said he hopes that lawmakers and policy experts see what happened in Houston as both a water infrastructure and power issue if they hope to prevent further outages.

“I am hoping that what happens is people see this as both a power issue and a water issue. I would think that one way to look at it is, you know, yes, it was a power issue. But is there a way that we could make our water system either more resilient or more efficient so that we don't have the same issues?”

It's not just boil water notices that should sound alarm bells. The state’s aging infrastructure already leads to massive water losses annually. A report released by Texas Living Waters project found that in 2020, the state lost at least 572,000 acre-feet of water per year. (An acre foot is about 326,000 gallons of water.)  That’s equal to about 51 gallons of water loss per water customer every day.

Put another way: “Estimated losses in 2020 were enough water to meet the total annual municipal needs of the cities of Austin, Fort Worth, El Paso, Laredo, and Lubbock combined,” the report notes.

That loss could be mitigated if lawmakers prioritize solutions for local utilities that record high water losses, more funding for the Texas Water Development Board, and taking advantage of federal programs that fund water infrastructure improvements, according to the report.

Lewis said while there are plenty of opportunities for improvement, he hopes that politics don’t hinder those advancements.

“Unfortunately, with our current political climate, I do believe that any environmental issue is automatically political,” he said. “That said, I think that if and when we start experiencing wider issues, that people may coalesce a little bit more and realize that it is something that affects everybody.”

Got a tip? Email Julián Aguilar at jaguilar@kera.org.You can follow Julián on Twitter @nachoaguilar

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