A boil-water notice in Houston made national news. In rural Texas, it’s a way of life
Rural communities face compounding reasons they can’t improve their water infrastructure, including inflation and a lack of human resources.
GRAPELAND — On the same day that 2 million residents in the nation’s fourth-most-populous city faced a boil-water notice that garnered national attention, a water system near this tiny East Texas town issued similar warnings to customers, marking the 68th boil-water notice issued this calendar year.
And while Houstonians responded to the news by scrambling to stock up on bottled water, customers of the Consolidated Water Supply Corp. proceeded as usual.
“We’ve had problems with the water since we’ve been here,” said David Wilshusen, a 69-year-old retired construction worker who has lived in an unincorporated area about a mile outside of Grapeland’s city limits for more than two decades. “You’ll be having a shower and then all of a sudden, where’s the water?”
Aging infrastructure, coupled with inflation driving up costs of supplies, has left Texas’ water infrastructure increasingly brittle. This year, there have been at least 2,457 boil-water notices issued across the state — an average of seven per day. According to an analysis by The Texas Tribune of data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, seven of the 10 water entities that issued the most notices are in rural East Texas.
Of the remaining three, two serve rural parts of north central Texas. The only agency to serve more than 50,000 people is the city of Killeen, about 70 miles north of Austin, which has a population of 156,260 people.
The complete picture of boil-water notices is unclear. The state’s environmental agency relies on each water district to self-report when they issue warnings, which can cause the data to be incomplete, officials say.
Near Grapeland, the Consolidated Water Supply Corp. provides water to 5,586 households mostly in unincorporated, sparsely populated areas of East Texas that are heavily forested. According to their internal data, they lead the state in boil-water notices this year, with about six boil-water notices per month, according to the company’s general manager Amber Stelly, though the state environmental agency has only tracked 50 of those notices. The city of Austin, by comparison, has issued three boil-water notices this year.
Wilshusen, the retired construction worker, and his wife don’t even bother to keep track of when they are or are not under a boil-water notice. Last week, they had heard about Houston’s boil-water notice but weren’t aware of their own.
Consolidated alerts customers of boil-water notices on their website, but some customers lack reliable broadband access. The company also shares information about boil-water notices on the local radio station each morning, and customers can sign up to receive alerts through email or text, an option some customers are not aware of.
“Consolidated is very quick to text me when my bill is due, but they can’t text me and say, ‘You’re under a boil-water notice,’” Wilshusen said.
Wilshusen relies on bottled water, buying five cases of Ozarka from the nearby Brookshire Brothers Express grocery store each month. He stacks the cases on and around a wooden chair in his kitchen, pulling bottles out each day until the supply runs out.
Wilshusen worries his hydration system won’t last forever. He is aging and is not sure how much longer he’ll be able to lug the heavy cases of water into his home.
“I’m not a spring chicken anymore,” Wilshusen joked. He’s considering drilling a well on his property.
Boil notices don’t always mean contaminated water
Water service interruptions that trigger boil-water notices can happen for a number of reasons. This ranges from bad weather conditions, a malfunction in the system, or even human error, and they are not always a sign of contamination that could endanger public health.
Perry Fowler, executive director of the Texas Water Infrastructure Network, said the notification systems could be improved so the public understands what is happening.
“Public utilities have a need to ensure that the public is informed and that they’re safe. They have an obligation to do that,” Fowler said. “Maybe there’s room to have a notice that, if it’s a lower severity or lower public health risk, where you’re not going to have people scared to death about using their water.”
In Killeen, residents have received 57 boil-water notices this year. Kent Cagle, the city manager, said the notices are largely related to development in the community, as fiber is being installed on every street and water lines have been hit during construction.
“Most of our boil-water notices only affect a half block or a few houses,” Cagle said, adding that it happens more in older areas of town.
To lower the risk of citywide boil notices, Cagle said the city has put water infrastructure needs in its operating budget without raising taxes.
“We will have it where, on an annual basis, we replace the oldest water and sewer lines,” Cagle said.
The majority of the Consolidated Water Supply Corp.’s boil-water notices stem from system pressures falling below minimum requirements because of maintenance issues such as leaks and power outages, Stelly said.
Though low water pressure doesn’t in itself mean harmful bacteria is present, it can be a threat to public health. Low water pressure can cause water to flow in the wrong direction and allow soil and other contaminants to enter drinking water.
The maintenance issues they face come in part from aging infrastructure. Texas water systems are old, and some original pipes and frameworks have been used for more than 50 years.
“I don't know why they won’t go through and just revamp the whole entire system by putting in new pipes and everything,” said Emily Jones, 74, who lives in an unincorporated area of Houston County, which includes Grapeland.
Jones said she and her husband drink bottled water only.
Revamping a community’s water system isn’t easy. Fowler said it’s a project that could take millions of dollars and a strong workforce — two resources that rural communities are lacking despite the growing need for rural infrastructure.
According to a survey of utility companies conducted by the Texas Water Infrastructure Network — a trade association that represents Texas companies involved in water infrastructure — 48% of utilities said their top investment priority next year is water and wastewater treatment. Another 30% listed water line repair or replacement as their top priority.
“It’s very expensive, and in some cases, the problems may be bigger than they’re prepared to handle,” Fowler said.
While the Texas Water Development Board, appointed by the governor to support regional water plans, does offer financial assistance for certain projects through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, nearly 62% of utility companies surveyed did not apply for funding, the water infrastructure network said. Some companies noted it’s because the application and administrative process is “too cumbersome.”
Fowler said it’s up to both local and state governments to ensure they have the adequate funds they need to get the projects going.
“It’s not a mystery what we need to do, but it takes political courage to go out and say what you need to be able to invest in your systems,” Fowler said. “There’s an obligation for local communities to have funding, and there’s a role the state plays to ensure they’re providing the means to have affordable investments in water.”
Why rural Texas struggles to keep up its infrastructure
The struggle rural areas face to improve their water infrastructure has been compounded by drought, inflation and a lack of human resources needed to apply for government aid, officials say.
This year, Texas has experienced its worst drought since 2011, which has also contributed to infrastructure issues. Extended periods of drought can cause the foundation to shift and crack. When rainfall comes, the foundation lifts the water lines with it, causing breaks.
Consolidated Water Supply Corp. serves most of rural Houston County along with parts of Anderson County and Walker Counties in East Texas. The sprawling system includes 66 tanks, 27 pressure planes and over 1.2 miles of distribution pipe per meter.
Stelly said that with pipe and PVC prices on the rise due to inflation, line replacement is cost prohibitive.
“With material prices and loan interest rates on the rise, we are instead focusing efforts on early leak detection and less invasive repairs,” she said.
Grapeland, a city of about 1,500 people, has its own water system. Public Works Director Kevin Watts said that coupled with aging infrastructure, small towns tend to offer low wages to their employees, which makes it difficult to hire skilled workers.
“You get people running your city infrastructure who most of the time aren’t educated,” Watts said. “Sometimes they don’t even have licenses — they are working under someone else’s.”
State Rep. Trent Ashby, a Lufkin Republican, said the Legislature should step in to support rural communities.
“While urban and suburban areas enjoy the resources and technical expertise to secure state funding for water infrastructure and improvement projects, rural water suppliers often lack the resources and expertise needed to navigate the complex bureaucracy of the state water funding process,” he said in a statement.
Both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Texas Water Development Board have opportunities for funding, but rural systems face barriers. Federal programs are typically loans, and smaller entities lack the necessary rates to be able to repay loans, said Jason Knobloch, deputy executive director of the Texas Rural Water Association. And they also don’t have the administrative resources to fill out grant applications.
“These utilities don’t have the wherewithal to go through these tedious processes,” Knobloch said. “And it’s not efficient to take out a $2 million loan.”
As boil-water notices continue to pop up around all areas of Texas, Fowler said he hopes more people are taking notice of how important reliable water infrastructure is.
“When you’re looking at millions of dollars in needs,” Fowler said, “the fact that water drives our economy should make it a priority for everyone.”
Disclosure: Texas Rural Water Association has been a financial supporter 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.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/12/07/boil-water-notices-rural-texas/.
The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.