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First Texans lost their power. Now, they’re losing their potable water.
After enduring multiple days of freezing temperatures and Texans dripping faucets to prevent frozen pipes from bursting, cities across the state warned residents on Wednesday that water levels are dangerously low and may be unsafe to drink. They’re telling Texans to boil tap water for drinking, cooking, brushing their teeth and for making ice — as residents have been struggling to maintain power and heat while an unprecedented winter storm whips across the state. While activities such as showering and doing laundry are safe, cities under water boil notices are asking people to conserve water if at all possible.
Approximately 590 public water systems in 141 Texas counties have reported disruptions in service, affecting nearly 12 million people as of late Wednesday afternoon, according to a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality spokesperson.
“Water pressure is very low. Please do not run water to keep pipes from bursting,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner tweeted Wednesday morning. “Turn off water if pipes have burst. Please contact us if you don’t know how to turn off water. Be conservative on water usage today. It is needed for hospitals and fires.”
Austin Mayor Steve Adler on Wednesday afternoon acknowledged that dripping faucets was the correct guidance earlier this week, but now it’s in people’s best interest to “shift gears and conserve water.” The city is also calling for volunteers who can help transport people from their homes to warming centers.
At a Wednesday press conference, TCEQ Executive Director Toby Baker said water quality issues were related to the lack of electricity, frozen and broken water lines, and people dripping faucets so much that it was causing lower water pressure. Baker also said it will take testing to demonstrate that the water is safe before boil notices can be lifted. There are only 135 labs in the state that do that sampling, he said, which means the boil notices could linger.
“It’s not clear when water supplies will be replenished, but energy constraints often have impact on the water system because the water system requires energy for treatment and pumping,” said Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
But because freezing temperatures are expected to persist throughout the week, bursting pipes could still be a risk, Webber said.
“That temperatures will drop below freezing again introduces the risk that water will freeze in pipes which can block the flow of water or damage the pipes,” Webber said.
The loss of drinking water is a devastating blow to Texans who are still suffering from power losses in freezing temperatures.
Madie Leon Riley, a Pflugerville resident who has been without water since Monday morning, said she doesn’t know when her faucet will be able to turn back on again — or when her toilet will be able to flush without melting top snow in it to keep water flow moving. Her mother and husband, who are currently living with her, are also boiling snow as back-up drinking water.
“No grocery stores are open in our area so there’s no chance for restock even if you are one of the very few with a car that can make it the miles it would take to get water,” Riley, a 27-year-old writer, told The Texas Tribune.
One Fort Worth resident reported a small “pencil-width” stream of water at their house. A Houston-area woman who lives near the Medical Center got water back for about an hour yesterday after, but said it was brown and undrinkable. A resident in San Antonio said their water froze even after running their taps.
On Tuesday, more than 200,000 residents of northern Fort Worth, as well as people in Keller, Southlake, Roanoke and other nearby communities were told to boil their water as power outages affected water treatment plants, the Dallas Morning News reported.
On the same day, several Houston-area municipalities, including the Pearland, Katy and Greatwood-Sugarland areas, have also issued the same instructions to their customers, the Houston Chronicle reported.
By mid-day Wednesday, Austin water was encouraging residents in southern parts of the city to boil water before drinking it — but maintained there’s “not detected contaminants in the water we are providing.”
“#AustinWater is asking customers in southwest #Austin and Lost Creek neighborhood to boil their water prior to using it for drinking or cooking, until further notice,” Austin Water tweeted. “This boil water notice is currently in specific areas and is a precautionary measure to ensure the health and safety of our customers.”
Hours later, Austin Water issued a citywide notice that residents should boil their water, KUT reported.
The city of Arlington also issued a notice asking residents to boil water before consumption. Corpus Christi did, too.
For now, it’s unclear when cities will be able to lift their water boil notices.