Experts Say Focus on Water Infrastructure Vital for Texas’ Future
Mar 10, 2023

Experts Say Focus on Water Infrastructure Vital for Texas’ Future

Reporting Texas

Empty plastic water jugs pile up at Julie Walker’s home in Channel Oaks II near Marble Falls, Texas, on Feb. 24, 2023. Walker has spent upwards of $20 each week on bottled water ever since a boil water notice took effect for her neighborhood in late January (Keaton Peters/Reporting Texas).

For more than 37 days, Julie Walker, 53, and her neighbors in the Channel Oaks II subdivision outside of Marble Falls, Texas, have had to boil their water, which often comes out of the tap a dark, murky brown. 

Walker rents a home in Channel Oaks II, high on a hill south of the Colorado River with sweeping views of Lake LBJ, where she lives with her mother who has Alzheimer’s disease.

“She doesn’t remember that the water’s contaminated, and she’ll go straight to the tap and try to get a drink of water. That could potentially get her sick,” Walker said. 

Gary and Kelly Crane have lived in the neighborhood for 28 years, and although this is the longest boil notice in that time, they said every year there have been problems with the community water system, which was built in the late 1960s. 

“We’re a small community. All we want is some good quality, potable water,” Gary Crane said. 

The Channel Oaks II neighborhood is one of many Texas communities dealing with aging water infrastructure. Water quality and water supply are often taken for granted until a major problem arises. But with thousands of boil water notices in communities around the state and severe drought in recent years, the need to make investments in repairing aging water infrastructure is increasingly a priority of Texas lawmakers, policy experts and even the general public. 

The Texas Legislature is considering dedicating a portion of the state’s $33 billion budget surplus to upgrade water infrastructure and fix water supply issues. Experts say the move is a step in the right direction, but even the full $33 billion will not completely solve Texas’ water issues, and fixing those issues is vital to the future of the rapidly growing state.

Jeremy Mazur, a senior policy advisor with the nonpartisan think tank Texas 2036, said as Texas continues to grow, one of the state’s biggest challenges is funding projects to fix aging and deteriorating water infrastructure and develop new water supplies to meet growing demand.

“There are so many people coming to Texas, and they’re not bringing water with them,” Mazur said.

Boil notices and leaky pipes

Water issues were highlighted at the State Capitol on Monday for Texas Water Day, which was organized by the nonpartisan nonprofit Texas Water Foundation. The foundation’s CEO Sarah Schlessinger has also worked to grow the bipartisan Texas Water Caucus, which started in January 2023 and now has 73 members.

“The prevalence and the frequency of boil notices in Texas is a strong indicator of aging and deteriorating infrastructure,” Schlessinger said.  

There were more than 3,100 boil water notices — often a sign of aging water infrastructure — issued in Texas in 2022, according to data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. In 2018, there were approximately 2,000 notices.

Boil notices are legally required whenever there is a loss of pressure in a water system. “If you don’t have a constant pressure maintained inside of a pipe, there’s a possibility of a contaminant coming in from leaks or cracks,” Schlessinger said.

Lara Zent is the Texas Rural Water Association’s executive director. “When a water line is old it’s going to be not as resilient to things like freezes and droughts, and it’s going to be much more likely to leak,” Zent said during Texas Water Day.

Cracked and leaking pipes are a serious problem, according to a report from the Texas Living Waters Project. The report estimated Texas loses nearly 572,000 acre-feet of water each year from leaky pipes, which is more than the annual water usage of Austin, Fort Worth, El Paso, Laredo and Lubbock combined. 

“You’ve already pumped that water. You’ve already treated that water. Now you’ve lost it into the ground. So if you have a need in the future to meet new water supply, the cheapest water is the water you’ve already produced,” said Executive Administrator with the Texas Water Development Board, Jeff Walker (no relation to Julie Walker of Channel Oaks II).

Residents of Channel Oaks II said their pipes are thin, not buried deep enough underground and have been ruptured by backhoes doing construction and garbage trucks hitting potholes. 

Replacing aging and leaky water systems comes with a large price tag. The Texas Rural Water Association conducted a survey in 2022 of rural water systems serving areas with less than 50,000 people. The survey found that 57% of water lines — about 480,000 miles — were 40 years old or older, and the total cost to replace them is estimated to be at least $190 billion. 

Billions to fix

In a 2021 report, the American Society of Civil Engineers graded Texas water infrastructure a C- for drinking water systems and D for wastewater systems. 

The report makes several recommendations, including to “encourage utilities to adopt rate models to fund adequate maintenance of drinking water infrastructure,” and to “implement leakage management controls to support the infrastructure’s ability to meet long-term water supply demand.” 

Michael Bloom, the Chair of the Government Affairs Committee of the Texas ASCE,  spoke during a panel at Texas Water Day. Federal grant money that funded construction of most water infrastructure projects dried up in the 1970s and ‘80s, so community water system owners and ratepayers typically have to pay for repairs and replacement, leading to many systems being neglected, Bloom said.

“There’s a tension between revenue sufficiency and not making your customers mad,” he said.

Texas provides state funding for water infrastructure through the Texas Water Development Board. Every five years, the board develops a 50-year plan to meet Texas’ water needs, and in 2022, the plan called for $80 billion to meet the state’s long term water infrastructure and supply needs. In fiscal year 2022, the board committed nearly $1.2 billion for financing water-related projects. 

Senate Bill 28, by Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, would dedicate additional state funds for water infrastructure projects administered by the board and private-public partnerships. The bill does not name a specific dollar amount, but Perry is asking for $3 billion from the state’s budget surplus to start, Perry’s chief of staff said. 

Rep. Tracy King, D-Batesville, chairman of the Texas Water Caucus and the House Natural Resources Committee, filed a similar bill in the Texas House of Representatives.

Speaking about the total cost of updating Texas water infrastructure, King told Reporting Texas, “it’s astronomical. This ($3 billion) is just a down payment on it.” 

Texans recognize water infrastructure as a major issue and would support going further than the $3 billion proposed, according to a poll by Texas 2036. Almost 89% of voters favored allocation of $5 billion from the budget surplus to repair water infrastructure, the poll found.

Jeff Walker also told Reporting Texas that the water development board is asking the legislature for an additional $175 million dollars in budget appropriations to help repair aging rural water systems. 

“If you don’t meet your water needs, you don’t have any kind of growth. Economic development relies on sustainable water,” Jeff Walker said. 

At Channel Oaks II, residents say help cannot come soon enough. The Public Utility Commission issued an emergency order on Feb. 23 compelling Channel Oaks Water System LLC to take steps to “provide continuous and adequate service.”  But ownership of the water system, which is an unincorporated area of Burnet County, is under dispute.

The PUC set a hearing date on the matter for March 23 in Austin. 

For Julie Walker, spending upward of $20 each week on bottled water is frustrating, but she is more concerned about her health and her mother’s health.

“We’ve thought about even having to move and leave our home. If we can’t get water, we can’t keep living like this. It’s just not acceptable” Julie Walker said.