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Everything you need to know about Texas’ beleaguered water systems

By Jayme Lozano Carver and Pooja Salhotra, The Texas Tribune

Everything you need to know about Texas’ beleaguered water systems” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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This article is part of a series published by The Texas Tribune examining the state’s deteriorating water infrastructure. For more in our Broken pipes series click here. And join us May 9 for a live discussion about our report and hear directly from Texans working to solve the problem.

It’s easy to take water for granted. Millions of Texans turn on their tap every day and clean water flows out. But there are a number of threats to the future of safe, clean drinking water, including unprecedented population growth, climate change and deteriorating infrastructure for water and wastewater.

Texas has a historic state budget surplus and an expected influx of $2.5 billion of water funding from the federal government, making water advocacy groups and stakeholders feel cautiously optimistic. A bipartisan group of state lawmakers coalesced around water issues in January under the new Texas House Water Caucus. And lawmakers are poised to pass a bill that could inject billions of dollars into new water supply projects and repairs to water infrastructure.

But it’s not a done deal yet. And voters likely will have the final say in the fall when they’re asked to approve a constitutional amendment that would create a new fund to fix our broken pipes.

Here’s what you need to know:

What is water infrastructure? Why does it matter? 

Water infrastructure includes all the components that help get water to people, from water treatment plants that make the water safe to drink to the pipes that transport the water to homes, businesses and schools.

The vast majority of that infrastructure is managed locally by public water systems of varying sizes — Texas has more than 7,000 of them. They include small towns like Zavalla and Wolfforth, and even mobile home parks and schools.

Much of the state’s water infrastructure is old and deteriorating, and public water systems are struggling to find the funds to keep up with needed repairs and increased demand from communities with growing populations.

How old are the pipes? 

The ages of Texas’ pipes vary both across and within water systems. The oldest pipes date back to as early as the 1890s.

There is no centralized database that keeps track of the age of Texas’ water systems. And while large systems tend to keep detailed records, the smaller, under-resourced ones often don’t.

Much of the state’s water infrastructure was developed in the post-World War II era and has not been upgraded since. A 2022 Texas Rural Water Association survey of small to mid-sized rural water systems found that the average date of installation for the systems was 1966.

What affects water infrastructure? 

Water infrastructure is vulnerable to a lot of unavoidable conditions, particularly when it comes to human activity and climate change.

Extreme temperatures, hot and cold, can affect how Texans get water. When the ground is extremely dry, such as times of drought, the soil expands and contracts, which puts pressure and stress on the pipes underground. And more intense heat accelerates water evaporation from Texas’ reservoirs. An example of this was last summer when the state experienced its worst drought in a decade and Texans faced hundreds of mandatory water restrictions, as water levels in reservoirs across the state fell drastically.

Water sprays out of a broken pipe in Crockett on April 19, 2023.
Water sprays out of a broken pipe in Crockett on April 19. Credit: Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune

Other circumstances, such as construction, oilfield work, and general wear and tear, can also have a negative impact on infrastructure over time. Even the traffic conditions on a road can impact the water infrastructure that lies beneath it.

Who doesn’t have water infrastructure and needs it? 

Colonias — thousands of largely low-income, Latino communities found along the Texas-Mexico border — are without basic infrastructure such as water and sewage systems, electricity and paved roads. As of 2015, close to a third of colonia residents didn’t have access to safe, clean drinking water, according to an estimate by the Rural Community Assistance Partnership, a national nonprofit group.

A handful of other unincorporated neighborhoods in Texas, such as Sandbranch, near Dallas, have gone without traditional water systems.

Why does the age of pipes matter? 

The older Texas’ water pipes get, the bigger the threat they are to the state’s water supply. Whether it’s losing billions of gallons of water because of a line break or a leaky pipe contaminating water with lead, the age of the state’s water infrastructure impacts public safety.

Small breaks, leaks and cracks in older pipes can allow foreign materials to contaminate the water supply. Some materials, such as cast iron, can also rust or corrode into the water, causing taste and odor issues. This is also how lead can be found in Texas’ water supply.

Texas loses a significant amount of water from infrastructure breaks and leaks. Texas lost an estimated 136 billion gallons of water in 2020 and 132 billion gallons of water in 2021, according to water-loss audit data submitted by public water suppliers to the Texas Water Development Board. That’s enough water to fill the AT&T stadium — home of the Dallas Cowboys and the third-largest stadium in the NFL — about 170 times over.

At least 30 billion gallons of the loss were caused by reported breaks and leaks that water agencies repaired in 2021, according to the report. The other 100 billion gallons can be attributed to faulty infrastructure and other issues, state officials said. One region defined by the board reported nearly 20 billion gallons lost to breaks or leaks alone. That region, known as Region H, includes Harris County, the state’s most populous.

For comparison, there were only 2 billion gallons lost to reported breaks or leaks in the entire state in 2011. The submission rate for the annual reports, which are required for water agencies that serve at least 3,300 customers and those that have received funding from the water board, varies from year to year. In 2011, just 117 agencies reported, compared with 828 in 2021. Water board staff said about 4,100 agencies — the state’s largest out of more than 7,000 — are required to submit reports. Agencies that do not report face few, if any, consequences. Chiefly, they cannot apply for state aid from the water board until their reports are filed.

A sign informs guests of the Emancipation Park Recreation Center in Houston that the city is under a boiled water notice on Nov. 28, 2022.
A sign seen on Nov. 28, 2022, informs guests of the Emancipation Park Recreation Center in Houston that the city is under a boil-water notice. Credit: Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune

What happens when water infrastructure breaks? 

When infrastructure breaks, a boil-water notice is supposed to be issued. These notices are required by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and happen when there is an unexpected disruption in the public water system. The notices are issued by local governments as a way to alert the public when the safety and quality of their drinking water may be compromised.

How long a city or town is under a boil-water notice varies. Last year, Houston was under a boil-water notice for nearly two days. The town of Toyah has been under a boil-water notice for nearly five years.

What role, if any, does the state play in water infrastructure? 

The cost of repairs and updates to infrastructure can climb quickly and is often unaffordable for some local budgets. To help alleviate that pressure, the state holds the key to funds for projects that range from equipment upgrades to bringing in new water resources. These limited funds are typically allocated by the Texas Water Development Board. It has given out approximately $33.6 billion since the agency was first formed in 1957. Last year, the TWDB received nearly $2.8 billion in funding requests from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund for water projects. However, they could approve only $378 million.

What are state lawmakers doing this year?

Texas lawmakers are ready to make serious investments in water infrastructure during this legislative session. Senate Bill 28, by Sen. Charles Perry of Lubbock, would focus at least $1 billion into infrastructure improvements and create the Texas Water Fund, which would pay for projects that acquire new sources of water for the state. The bill was filed with Senate Joint Resolution 75, which proposes a constitutional amendment for the fund. This ultimately leaves the billions of dollars that are at stake in the hands of voters, who will have the final say in November.

How does the state’s population growth affect water infrastructure? 

Texas is expected to see an increase in demand for water in 187 out of 254 counties between 2020 and 2050, according to last year’s Texas State Water Plan. This will increase the cost of water. Water rates will rise to pay for replacing and fixing current water infrastructure, new water infrastructure to support growing populations and new water treatment technologies for clean water quality.

Disclosure: AT&T and Texas Rural Water Association have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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