By Todd H. Votteler, Ph.D. Editor-in-Chief of Texas+Water and the Texas Water Journal
Earlier this month, during a special session of the Texas Legislature, the Texas Capitol flooded. After the water stopped cascading down the pink granite walls inside the Capitol extension, the Legislature resumed its deliberations.
The August flood was preceded by February’s Winter Storm Uri. Between 200 and 700 Texans died in the cold and dark after days without power and, in some places, without water. According to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the electric grid was four minutes and 37 seconds from a catastrophic collapse potentially requiring months to fix and a partial evacuation of the state. More than 15 million Texans were told to boil water to make it safe to drink. Others had no water service at all, as the combined power outages and frigid temperatures knocked out normally safe, reliable water suppliers.
Now, six months later, a new survey of Texas water utilities shows that 79% of them are still concerned that the reliability of the Texas energy grid could affect their operations. Whether it is a week without running water in the dead of winter, or an August flash flood at the Capitol, Texas’ water infrastructure is struggling. Yet the aging water infrastructure also struggles to attract the attention of Texas’ leaders.
Water — what we depend on most for the basics of life — has been mostly overlooked for decades under leadership from both parties. The 87th Texas Legislature was no different, with water infrastructure receiving little attention. The Legislature’s reaction to Winter Storm Uri focused on the power side of the equation, rather than on both power and water. But with climate change powering droughts and floods across the state and an average of 800 people moving to Texas every day, the unrelenting strain on the state’s water infrastructure can no longer be ignored.
Almost as if timed for the aftermath of Winter Storm Uri, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released their 2021 state and national infrastructure report cards, which are sober nonpartisan assessments of infrastructure conditions. Overall, America got a C- and Texas got a C. ASCE found that America would need $2.5 trillion in investments for every infrastructure category to make the honor roll. Texas’ grades on particular areas of water infrastructure were even lower:
Dams: D+ (3,200 of the 7,200 nonfederal dams in Texas are exempted from state dam safety requirements)
Levees: D (there is no state program monitoring levees that protect $127 billion in property)
Wastewater: D (only $200 million is needed to close the smallest gap needing closing)
Drinking Water: C- (the new State Water Plan is projected to cost $80 billion)
Flood Risk Mitigation: C- (one in 10 Texans are exposed to moderate to high annual riverine flood risks)
Put lightly, this is not good. While those who provide Texans with water generally do their best with what they have, our infrastructure is the backbone of Texas’ economy, the 9th-largest in the world.
Even so, a partial solution to Texas’ failing grades could be on the horizon. After decades of neglect and lip service, Texas water infrastructure may finally be getting a much-needed infusion of funding from the federal government. The $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 (Infrastructure Act) is designed to address water infrastructure needs, among many others. While only $550 billion of the Infrastructure Act is new spending, compared to the $2.5 trillion need, it is a good start, according to Mark Boyd, chair of the Texas ASCE’s Infrastructure Report Card Committee. The Infrastructure Act also encourages using nonstructural or green infrastructure solutions, such as restoring floodplains and wetlands.
Four questions remain. Is Texas ready to take advantage of the opportunities that could present themselves should Congress approve the Infrastructure Act? Can Texas meet the additional water needs as the population grows from 29.5 million to 51.5 million by 2070? Can Texas handle another event like Winter Storm Uri next year or the year after? And finally, is the state prepared for more drought — the bane of Texans’ existence — like the seven-year drought of record in the 1950s, let alone droughts supercharged by climate change?
Winter Storm Uri laid bare the fragility of the Texas power grid, and Texas’ aging water infrastructure is just as fragile. Adapting to the new ‘abnormal’ will require action. Texans need to decide whether to meet these challenges head-on, or just hope for the best.