Water experts urgently call for funding to address threats to Texas infrastructure
Experts talked about how and where the state can best invest money to keep Texas water safely flowing to the public.
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Texas faces a water infrastructure crisis, with poor and old pipes breaking and increasing numbers of boil-water notices in rural towns.
In one recent example, a major water line break in the city of Odessa left more than 165,000 people without water for days in the midst of a historic drought.
State lawmakers are considering funneling billions of dollars to new water supply projects and upgrades, specifically benefiting rural communities. Some water experts say getting Senate Bill 28, filed by Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, to the finish line could make this year “one of the best” water investments in Texas history.
In the case of both dollars and water, “Every drop counts,” said Carlos Rubinstein, principal at the environmental consulting firm RSAH2O and a former chair of the Texas Water Development Board.
These observations were part of an hourlong Texas Tribune panel discussion Tuesday that featured Rubinstein, Ector County Judge Dustin Fawcett; Melanie Barnes, a senior research associate in geosciences at Texas Tech University; and Omar L. Martinez, grants and strategic initiatives manager for the City of El Paso Economic and International Development Department.
The “Broken Pipes: How We Can Keep Water Safely Flowing in Texas” event was moderated by Tribune South Plains and Panhandle reporter Jayme Lozano Carver at the University of Texas Permian Basin in Midland. The discussion was centered on how and where the state can best invest money to keep Texas water safely flowing to the public. It follows the publication of a four-part series that dives deep into why Texas’ water infrastructure is deteriorating and what solutions can be enacted to secure the state’s future water supply.
Water infrastructure includes all the components that help get water to people, from treatment plants that make water safe to drink to the pipes that transport it.
During the event, experts pointed to a number of threats to the state’s water infrastructure, including a surging population, climate change and aging pipes. The problems span the state: East Texas has seen an onslaught of boil-water notices in recent years, while West Texas is losing water rapidly and the forgotten colonias, majority Latino communities along the Texas-Mexico border, don't have water infrastructure at all.
Some Texas pipes date back as far as the 1890s, but the age of the infrastructure can vary across and within water systems.
Texas’ aging water infrastructure, with many components made out of steel, lead, and iron pipes, is increasingly vulnerable to leaks, cracks, and breaks. Extreme weather events, now more frequent due to climate change, further damage these deteriorating pipes.
“If you ever get one little crack in a ladder, and you get water touching bare metal, of course you have rust and corrosion, and it starts from there and it just gets worse and worse,” said Tom Bailey, director of public works for the city of Zavalla, in a pre-recorded interview with Nic Garcia, regions editor for The Texas Tribune.
When water infrastructure does break, a boil-water notice is supposed to be issued. From 2018 to 2022, 55% more boil-water notices were issued than over the previous five-year period, according to a Tribune analysis of data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
These breaks and small cracks can also lead to harmful contaminants entering the water supply. A 2016 report also found that 65 Texas water systems contained excessive levels of arsenic, exposing more than 82,000 Texans.
The state’s drinking water infrastructure barely received a passing grade in a 2021 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers. That year, the state reported more than 30 billion gallons of water lost to breaks or leaks across its roughly 7,000 water systems, according to the Texas Water Development Board.
As Texas continues to grow rapidly, the state is expected to see an increase in demand for water, which will increase the cost of water and place more stress on the state’s water infrastructure.
The state will need an estimated $61.3 billion in infrastructure investment over the next 20 years to fix its broken system, according to a national survey by the Environmental Protection Agency.
But getting money to fix public water systems isn’t straightforward, especially for rural towns. Officials often face backlash when systems increase rates, but Rubinstein said Texans need to understand the value of what they are paying for and think of the future.
Increases in water rates help with funds for infrastructure repairs or future expansions.
“[Texans] should first recognize the value of the water that you have. Because the cheapest water you’ll find is the one you already have, so take care of it,” he said.
The landmark proposed water bill would also require the Texas Water Development Board to establish a technical assistance program to help public utilities in rural areas apply for grants and loans. But since the legislation would be a constitutional amendment, voters in the state must approve it.
“It will take more than dumping dollars into the problem,” Martinez said. “Our workforce continues to be the biggest issue that Texas is facing currently.”
Martinez said one of the problems that he is encountering is that the water workforce is aging. He fears that if industry experts and state leaders don’t find a way to make “water sexy” and attract youth to join the “water world,” then local leaders won’t have the manpower to help their communities with water needs.
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