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Texas water quality, quantity in trouble as infrastructure ages

Some pipes in Texas' water infrastructure are old, leading to quality and quantity issues of an essential service.
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Some pipes in Texas' water infrastructure are old, leading to quality and quantity issues of an essential service.

We all use it many times a day - water. It’s easy to take it for granted, when it works like it’s supposed to. But Texas’ water infrastructure is increasingly unstable. Rural communities, in particular, are dealing with supply and quality issues.

That’s the focus of a new series from The Texas Tribune. South Plains and Panhandle Reporter Jayme Lozano Carver is in the studio to tell us more about this problem and what it will take to fix it.

The Tribune is hosting a panel discussion in Midland next week called “Broken Pipes: How We Can Keep Water Safely Flowing In Texas.” That’s at noon on Tuesday and seats are still available.

Sarah Self-Walbrick: Tell us first about Texas’ water supply. Where do we get water from in our area? And are there concerns about its quantity or quality? 

Jayme Lozano Carver: Lubbock gets its water from three different areas - the city-owned well field and Bailey County, and that's water that comes from the Ogallala Aquifer. We get water from Lake Meredith. And of course, there's Lake Alan Henry.

Whenever it comes to quality, it's not really a secret that water in this area isn't the best. We know that water from the aquifer has fluoride and arsenic, and it's tested for other harmful contaminants, too. A lot of these can be traced back to causing cancer. There are known carcinogens in our water.

There are definitely concerns about quantity, too. The Texas Observer had a great story earlier this year about water decline in the Brazos River, which is where water in Lake Allen Henry comes from. I've heard many Lubbock residents over the years say that the city is too generous with their water, and that they don't plan for the future in terms of where that water is going and how many people will be here. [Lubbock City Manager] Jarrett Atkinson is very confident in the supply that we have now. He also appears to be confident in the deals that they have for the future as well.

SSW: Pipes are a big part of the infrastructure that gets water to us. Your team's recent reporting found that some pipes in the state are really old and made out of questionable materials. Why is that a problem?

JLC: Our reporting did show us that we have pipes in the state that were made of lead, that we even have wooden pipes in some areas, like what was found in Pampa, four years ago. But the age of pipes is a problem that has snowballed over the years because it's truly just very hard for cities, and especially rural communities, to manage a mapping system whenever the state doesn't even have a database on age or locations of pipes. Whenever we have these old pipes, they do kind of leave our water more vulnerable to harmful contaminants. It can also even lead to breaks, like what we saw in Odessa last summer. The TWDB [Texas Water Development Board] data even shows us that there are 30 billion gallons of water lost every year as a direct result of leaks and breaks. And that number is likely far greater because the reporting system to the TWDB is mostly voluntary,

SSW: Other than issues with mapping, what are some other reasons why those haven’t been updated? I can imagine having funding for projects like that is a big piece of it. 

JLC: Yeah, absolutely. And really, funding is exactly what it comes down to. Nobody likes to put a dollar amount on a literal life necessity, but that's what it is. A lot of these cities and towns, they have to find the money to hire someone to dig underground and see exactly what's there. They have to find money to update it. And then we're also asking them to spend all this money on a problem that maybe isn't as urgent as some of the other problems in their community, that they have to budget for. It's just kind of an out-of-sight, out-of-mind issue until a problem happens.

SSW: These infrastructure issues can lead to boil water notices, which we see often in our area. Why are those an issue? 

JLC: You and I both grew up out here, and we could probably name off a few communities that we know get them every week or every other week even. But boil water notices, they really show us any kind of disruption in our water system. So this can be a leak, this can be a bad odor or bad taste. Really, anything that impacts our public supply. And so whenever we do start to see a pattern or a town getting a notice often, that's essentially a sign that something is wrong with the water and that it's time to dig deep to find out what that is.

SSW: In your reporting, you specifically highlighted Wolfforth and its water challenges. Tell us more about what’s happening there. 

JLC: Wolfforth has had water challenges for a very long time, But they're also actively working on it, which is why I wanted to highlight them. There was a 10-year period where Wolfforth received 362 violations for exceeding fluoride and arsenic levels. We know that kind of exposure for such a long period of time is very harmful. They've also had a reputation for lacking water, which was spelling disaster for anybody who wanted to move there.

Over the last few years, we have seen city leadership open a water treatment plant to make the water safer. Now, the water isn't exactly free from arsenic and fluoride, but it is at lower levels that the TCEQ will now accept. After securing a deal to purchase water from Lubbock, which goes into effect next month, Wolfforth City Manager Randy Criswell likes to boast that they've gone from water scarce to secure.

SSW: Wolfforth is a growing community. How does population growth factor into this, across the state? 

JLC: It really comes down to if we have enough water for everyone who wants to live here. We know that there are already at least 30 million people in the state, while we are losing at least 132 billion gallons of water every year. The population is supposed to balloon to 54.4 million by 2050. So, whenever you pair that with our aging infrastructure and our declining water levels, that future can look really scary unless there is some planning.

SSW: We’re in the last month of the Texas legislature. What are lawmakers doing about this? 

JLC: This year, Lubbock [State Senator] Charles Perry has probably been the biggest water leader in the legislature. Senate Bill 28 covers almost everything that we've talked about today by creating the Texas Water Fund, which would infuse billions of dollars to deal with our poor water infrastructure and put money towards bringing in new water sources to the state. So, it deals with the water quality and the water quantity issue.

There's another bill in the House, HB 2701, that would allow water systems to work together without legislative approval. We've spoken with Carlos Rubinstein who is a known water expert in the state. He’s actually spearheaded this bill because it has helped Florida's water supply. So kind of an idea that we're taking from another state and seeing if it can help here.

While all of this sounds good, it is important to note that Perry's water bill does come with a constitutional amendment. So voters do have the say in if these billions of dollars get spent or not. While we know it's hard to predict what voters will spend money on, there are surveys that show there is a big interest in repairing water infrastructure from voters. But there are also a lot of people responding to our project right now, saying that places should be dealing with their issues on their own and not asking for handouts. So really, we will just have to see how that bill turns out in November.

Sarah Self-Walbrick is the news director at Texas Tech Public Media, where she leads the news team and focuses on underreported stories in Lubbock. Sarah is a Lubbock native and a three-time graduate of Texas Tech University. She started her career at the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.