AUSTIN (KXAN) — When Don Rau tried to run the tap water in his sink last Wednesday and no water came out, he was worried.
He cares for his 75-year-old mother with COPD and other health problems. Her breathing machine runs on water, and she needs water to take medicine throughout the day — not to mention, to drink too. As the days stretched on, he grew more concerned.
“I’m driving around the city, driving around to every single place — to H-E-B, to Randalls — and there was none,” he said.
It’s a moment of panic many Austinites felt over the last week, after the winter storms took down more than just power and also knocked out water service for large portions of the city.
Between burst pipes, leaks and water main breaks, the city estimated losing hundreds of millions of gallons of water, depleting the supply in area reservoirs. Power outages at treatment plants forced cities across the area to issue boil water notices to those who had power. Plus, when the water pressure dips below a certain level, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality requires testing to ensure it’s safe to drink.
By Monday, Austin Water announced they had restored water service and lifted boil notices for most of the city. Many families in other parts of Central Texas were still waiting.
“It does add a lot more stress to us,” Manor mom Tiffany Andrews said.
She said they used Aqua America as their utility service, but learned through this process that Manville Water Supply Corporation actually supplied their water. In the days when their water was off, they looked to both entities — and the cities of Manor and Austin — for updates and direction, but she said the communication was lacking. Now, she’s boiling in more ways than one.
“We all feel forgotten,” she said.
TCEQ’s Executive Director Toby Baker said they were focused on reaching out to water systems operators to help connect them with testing labs as quickly as possible.
“We’re really trying to help connect the systems that don’t have access to labs, or if those labs were inundated with high usage, just find labs open in the state and get them there,” he said.
Austin Water, for example, has access to their own lab, but Baker said smaller or more rural systems might not.
He said some municipal utilities with labs of their own were able to take in samples from surrounding areas to help with the influx. In total, there are nearly 90 labs processing samples following these storms.
“At the beginning of this, we didn’t really know what we were facing,” he said, noting they estimated more labs to be available when the crisis began. “I think COVID is probably one of the reasons.”
Still, they think the number of labs online will be able to handle all the samples in need of processing over the next few days.
According to their data three days ago, 14.9 million Texans’ were on a boil water notice after their water systems were impacted. As of Monday night, that number was down to under 8 million. 33,000 people still don’t have water, but Baker credits hard-working utility crews bringing that number way down from it’s peak Friday.
They also worked with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to launch three mobile testing labs. One was already up and running in Houston; the other two were en-route to Dallas and San Antonio.
Labs in Arkansas and Oklahoma have also volunteered to assist, but Baker said we haven’t had to call on them yet.
“With the capacity that we have, we are in pretty good shape,” he said.
He noted the state isn’t facing a backlog in the testing process, but rather the process just takes some time — 24 hours or more from the time the water samples arrive at a lab.
TCEQ doesn’t have an estimate for when every water system in the state will be fully restored and safe again — he’s urging customers to check with their local authorities and water suppliers for updates. His agency, though, is bracing for a full-scale review of what regulation changes and requirements they can institute moving forward. Some, he says, will require legislative approval at the state and federal level.
“Where do we need to spend the money to harden the infrastructure to make sure this doesn’t happen again?” he asked.
While going back and burying water pipes is “probably not in the cards,” Baker thinks there could be changes to bolster the water treatment plants.
“Everything is on the table right now. We are not going to waste this event and get down the road 20 years from now or 30 years from now and have another event like this, and then look back to this one and say, ‘Hey, we knew that was an issue back then,'” he said. “We are going to attack that head on.”
Rau told KXAN, after a week full of uncertainty and panic, he has a lot of questions for local and state leaders.
“What I want is accountability,” he said. “What’s going to prevent this from happening again?”