Drought Damages Texas Infrastructure

In West Texas, the main concern is water. In cities like Houston and Fort Worth, clay soil is drying up because of the blistering summer heat, bursting water pipelines and splitting asphalt roads. Across Texas, the cause of these spiraling problems is the same: a nine-month drought that shows no signs of relenting.

Cracks have formed in the asphalt on Bayou Wood Circle near County Road 687 south of Angleton, Texas Tuesday Aug, 2, 2011.

When a wildfire chewed through power lines at a field of water wells in late June, Lubbock lost 9 million gallons of water a day during the nearly two weeks it took to finish repairs.

In cities like Houston and Fort Worth, clay soil is drying up because of the blistering summer heat, bursting water pipelines, buckling house foundations and splitting asphalt roads.

Across Texas, the cause of these spiraling problems is the same: a nine-month drought that shows no signs of relenting.

In West Texas, the main concern is water. A lightning strike near the Texas-New Mexico border sparked Lubbock's June wildfire, which knocked out 20 percent of the wells that provide water for the city, reducing supply for the next two weeks to 62 million gallons a day from 71 million gallons. The city was already restricting water use and has been in Stage 1 of its drought plan since 2006 (residents can only water two days a week from April through September) because its other water source, Lake Meredith, is critically low. After the fire, vegetation was cleared from the well fields to ensure that another fire would not threaten the city's water supply. 

"If the fire had struck in a more crucial spot, we would not have been able to supply water to Lubbock," said Aubrey Spear, the city's water utilities director.

A five-hour drive to the east, Fort Worth is one of the rare Texas cities that has not established water restrictions — yet. But in July, there were more than 200 water main breaks due to shifting soil. On a single day in early July, residents reported 20 breaks.

And if Fort Worth residents continue to consume water at a record rate, the city will most likely put into effect its first stage of restrictions next month, said Mary Gugliuzza, the public education coordinator at the water department.

Austin is also seeing more breaks in water mains. The city's water department has been averaging 10 to 15 breaks more than usual each week, said Jason Hill, as spokesman for the department. Austin — which has rockier soil than areas farther east — is in Stage 1 water restrictions (residents can only water two days a week) but may move to Stage 2 as early as this fall (residents would only be able to water one day a week), Hill said.

In Lake Jackson, about 50 miles south of Houston, residents call the soil gumbo — and the mixture of clay and sand is cracking wide open. "We could lose small children, Volkswagens and dogs," said Bill Yenne, the Lake Jackson city manager.

The drought is also causing streets to crack, Yenne said, particularly those lined by trees that suck moisture from the ground. The new cracks are opening as city workers continue to mend fissures in the streets from the 2009 drought.

"Effects of this drought will be seen long after it's over," Yenne said.

For foundation repair companies, at least, the drought is a boon because the same soil that causes water lines to rupture and streets to crack causes foundations to buckle under the shifting ground. Dawson Foundation Repair, a Houston company that does business across East Texas, is booked into October.

And as the scorching days add up, the entire state is worrying about power failures, which have already occurred at Texas City refineries and in the Rio Grande Valley. When dust and other contaminants coat insulators on power lines and get damp, they can conduct electricity and cause failures, said Kent Saathoff, the vice president of system planning and operations at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state's main grid operator.

There is also a risk that water needed to cool power plants, which comes from lakes and reservoirs, could run out next year if the drought continues, Saathoff said. If that happens, the plants will either run at a reduced level or, in drastic cases, shut down.

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