Texas’ aging water system could pose a threat to many of its towns’ water supply and quality, as evinced by a recent water outage in Odessa that resulted from a broken pipeline.
The outage in Odessa last month was not the first or only of its kind. Also in June, areas around College Station flooded after a water line broke. In May, Bell County residents were instructed to use at least 50% less water because of a water leak in the main line, and Laredo residents experienced a water cutoff when a 50-year-old water line broke in February.
After the massive water line break, Odessa was left without water for two days. City officials are still investigating the cause of the line break, but they have disclosed that the water line is about 60 years old.
Odessa’s city utilities director, Thomas Kerr, said, “Aging water systems are common throughout the country,” adding, “It’s often difficult for municipalities to be able to afford to manage those systems as they age.”
The series of issues may indicate the current state of aging water lines across the state.
Ken Rainwater, a Texas Tech University professor, told Odessa American that 40% of the water pipes across the state are made of cast iron, while another 20% are made of iron-based materials. However, he said cast iron is no longer used as it degrades with age.
Various factors can cause critical infrastructure to fail, according to Rainwater. Water pipes can falter due to age or the material they are made from, and a region’s climate, along with the amount of water the system carries in high-traffic areas also affect pipelines’ longevity.
Water boil notices can indicate whether infrastructure is suffering or not, he added. When a water boil notice is reported, the system is shut down, and the water must be disinfected and cleaned.
In the past year, Texas reported a total number of 3,866 water boil notices, mainly in East Texas. Harris County was also among those with the most water boil notices. Over the past 10 years, Harris County averaged 130.09 water boil notices a year, whereas Dallas County averaged 0.82.
In 2021, a report issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers rated the quality of drinking water in Texas as C-, deeming it mediocre and in need of attention.
The report noted that this is an especially pressing issue for Texas, as its population is increasing rapidly. Texas is likely to grow by over 1,000 people every day for the next five decades, per the report, meaning that in 50 years, the population could increase from 29.7 million to 51.5 million.
Odessa plans on slowly replacing all the old iron pipes with ones made using PVC, fiberglass, or high-density polyethylene. However, replacing all the city’s pipes could take 100 years, according to the Odessa American. In addition to replacing the lines, Odessa would have to replace thousands of valves, making the process longer and costlier.
Smaller cities may face more challenges in righting their water systems, as it is harder for them to get the funds needed. Idalou city administrator Suzette Williams told the Texas Tribune that their city has had a contamination issue they have been trying to fix for five years.
Idalou is located about 150 miles north of Odessa and has a population of about 1,800.
This past year, Williams made seven requests to the Lubbock County Commissioner’s Court for funds to deal with the water contamination. She plans to use funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, which is expected to distribute $5 billion as a part of a COVID-19 recovery plan.