It has been almost two months since a winter storm rattled Texas, but the failures that occurred must still be addressed.
While a few of the failures were little more than bad political optics, the failure to notify the public that tap water had become unsafe left millions of people in danger.
From Dallas to Galveston, 15.1 million Texans were under a boil-water notice. More than 1,300 public water systems reported some type of water disruption. A boil-water notice is a public warning that the tap water must be vigorously boiled for a few minutes before it’s safe to consume. The advisories were needed after many water mains burst, causing contaminants to flood the water supply as cities lost water pressure.
The loss of water pressure is dangerous because harmful bacteria, including E. coli, can thrive in water pipes without the proper pressure. Biofilm, a plaque-like sludge responsible for thousands of deaths a year, can also grow in pipes without proper pressure.
When the water system failed during the storm, many people were left unaware. Social media was riddled with posts from panicked Texans who didn’t know what they were drinking. As Texans looked for answers, they were left with some unhelpful guidance from public officials: Call the 311 helpline or search online. This isn’t an easy task when the power is out.
The tap water confusion was compounded by the fact that each city was struggling with its own problem. In San Angelo, residents were told to not boil the water after a pressure loss resulted in a benzene contamination. Benzene, a known carcinogen, was detected at 35 times the limit considered to be safe. Benzene, unlike other contaminants, is more dangerous when boiled.
The problem here — besides the obvious lack of safe tap water — is that families were left with little help. The guidance in San Angelo wasn’t the same as the guidance in Houston. The average person has no clue boiling benzene- contaminated water will put their family at risk. Yet, when the winter storm hit and the tap water was unsafe, the best advice most public officials could put together was to tell people without electricity or cellphone coverage to search for updates online.
This isn’t the first time a tap water disaster has occurred in Texas. In fact, it’s a concern in normal times. The Texas water supply is riddled with contaminants, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency. It could take months — if not years — for officials in Texas to repair the damage to the tap water infrastructure. Texans must start looking out for themselves.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends families store at least 1 gallon of bottled water per person, per day, with enough water for a two-week supply for everyone in the household.
Officials in Texas must do their part, too. They need an infallible system to notify the public when the tap water becomes contaminated. One that works even if, and especially when, the power is out.