Thursday, December 01, 2022

Aging pipes in Texas cities are becoming more brittle

Odessa city officials are still investigating what caused a massive water line break that left the city without water for 48 hours last month. But they have shared an important detail: the water line was about 60 years old.

“Aging water systems are common across the country,” said Thomas Kerr, director of public services for Odessa, during a news conference the day after the line broke. “It’s often difficult for municipalities to be able to manage those systems as they age. That is the situation we find ourselves in.”

The Odessa water shutoff exposed the city to a reality that is occurring throughout Texas and the nation: water supply systems have become increasingly vulnerable to disasters.

In February, many Laredo residents had their water cut off due to a break in 50-year-old pipes. In May, Bell County residents were asked to use 50% less water after a water leak. Last month, a broken water line caused areas of College Station to flood, which officials said was due to dry conditions.

Last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers issued a report that gave a grade of C- to Texas’ drinking water infrastructure, describing it as “lackluster.” [and] requires attention.”

The report notes that it is important for Texas to keep up with the demand for drinking water as its population continues to grow. According to the report, the population of Texas is projected to grow by more than 1,000 people per day over the next five decades, from 29.7 million in 2020 to approximately 51.5 million by 2070.

The report also states that many wastewater systems are not resilient enough to withstand extreme events. According to the report, the number of sanitary sewer overflows more than doubled, from 2,500 to nearly 6,000 between 2016 and 2019, and are a threat to Texas lakes, rivers and beaches.

Ken Rainwater, a professor of civil, environmental, and construction engineering at Texas Tech University, said many factors can cause critical infrastructure to fail, and in the case of water mains, it could be anything from age to the material. They are made of. Other factors are the conditions surrounding the pipes, including the climate of the area and whether they are buried near high-traffic areas.

A Large Crack Runs The Length Of A Broken Main After City Of Odessa Water Distribution Employees Worked To Repair The Broken Line Tuesday, June 14, 2022, In Odessa.  According To The Mayor Of Odessa, Javier Joven, The Line Has Been Fixed Since Around 3:45 Am And The System Begins To Pressurize Slowly.
A large crack runs the length of a water main after Odessa Water Distribution employees worked to repair the broken line on June 14. Credit: Courtesy of Odessa American/Eli Hartman

In an interview with the Odessa American, Kerr said that 40% of the city’s pipes are made of cast iron and another 20% are made of iron-based materials. According to Rainwater, cast iron became widely available and used after World War II, when many cities were adding to their infrastructure. Now, because of the way the material degrades as it ages, Rainwater said it’s not used when upgrading or repairing pipes.

While Odessa has likely replaced some of its aging pipes in the past, Rainwater said cities with older infrastructure are expected to be surprised by breaks and failures from time to time.

“We have learned that cast iron pipes have a useful life of about 50 years, so [Odessa] 60 years have passed,” he said. “But it’s like you decide, ‘How long am I going to wait to change the tires on my car?'”

Boiling water advisories are a good indicator of how problematic a city’s water infrastructure is becoming. Rainwater said that when a water system is shut down, it also takes time to start disinfecting and cleaning the water again before it’s safe to use, which is often why boil water advisories are issued.

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According to data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, 2021 was the worst year for boil water advisories in the past decade, with 3,866 reported. The large number of reports could be related to last year’s winter storm, when more than 14.6 million Texans had their water supply interrupted due to frozen or broken pipes. During that time, 1,655 boil water advisories were issued.

On average, over the last 10 years, East Texas has experienced more boil water advisories than any other area per year. TCEQ said only 12 of 254 Texas counties had no listings in the last decade. The agency had no additional information on why, noting that the information available is self-reported by public water officials in each city.

Smaller cities, bigger challenges

Keeping water safe is an important function of a city’s infrastructure, and it’s a challenge in places like Idalou, a city of about 1,815 people about 150 miles north of Odessa.

“Our top priority is funding a water treatment plant,” said Idalou City Manager Suzette Williams. “Our best-producing well has a contaminant that exceeds the maximum level, and we’ve tried to fix it in the past, but we couldn’t maintain the level.”

The contamination problem has been ongoing for about five years, but Williams said it has been difficult to find the funds to get the treatment plant out of the city. According to Williams, it’s been 12 years since the city issued a bond to citizens, and even then, it was for water and sewer improvements.

“Financing opportunities are not as easily accessible as perhaps other larger cities that can issue larger amounts of debt to do a big project,” Williams said. “It’s a 20-year note, so we also look at the climate of the economy, because every time we add debt to our portfolio, that debt is transferred to the citizens, and that’s when we see increases in utility rates for cover the bail payment.

In March, Williams submitted seven requests to the Lubbock County Commissioner’s Court as part of requests for funding through the American Rescue Plan Act, which is expected to dole out about $5.7 billion for COVID-19 recovery in Texas. Williams’ requests were primarily related to improvements to the water system.

“Regardless of whether we receive funding through the county’s ARPA funds, this project must continue,” Williams said. “If we have to consider debt issuance, that will be our next step.”

Residents “want to raise their families here, they want to have safe drinking water,” he added. “And they understand that there will be some costs associated with that.”

Raising money for these projects is a hurdle for small communities, but rate increases are a feasible option. According to the Texas Water Journal, raising rates is the only low-cost means for cities and utility boards to secure funding for needed improvements in a short period of time.

Financing improvements and repairs has become even more difficult due to supply shortages and rising commodity prices as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Perry L. Fowler, executive director of the Texas Water Infrastructure Network, said contractors who specialize in water systems have a harder time giving their clients an accurate estimate of repair work because of those uncertainties.

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“Getting guaranteed prices on certain items is difficult until you submit a purchase order that day. So there is a lot of risk out there. It really requires a lot more planning and communication in some cases, and more funding,” Fowler said.

Odessa City Water Distribution Employees Work Through The Night As They Try To Repair A Broken Water Pipe On Tuesday, June 14, 2022 In Odessa.  According To Odessa Mayor Javier Joven, The Repairs Were Completed Around 3:45 A.m. Wednesday.
Odessa Water Distribution employees worked through the night while trying to repair a broken water main on June 14. Credit: Courtesy of Odessa American/Eli Hartman

no silver bullet

President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was signed into law in November, promises to bring much-needed financial relief to Texas. According to the Texas Water Development Board, it hasn’t received funding yet, but expects to receive nearly $508 million this fiscal year.

While the federal funds that will flow to the state are much-needed help, some experts say it’s not enough.

“People talk about this like it’s an infrastructure renaissance, and frankly, I don’t agree with that,” Fowler said. “Anyone who’s really familiar with him knows that’s not necessarily the case. It’s more money, no doubt. He might go to some communities that really need him, but he is by no means the panacea for our water infrastructure needs.”

Another issue facing Texas water infrastructure is the ongoing drought. Texas is experiencing the worst drought in a decade. About 80% of Texas has been facing drought conditions most of the year, according to the US Drought Monitor.

“When it dries out, the ground expands and contracts, and when it does, it impacts everything that’s underground,” Fowler said. “So if the pipes are in a condition where the soil expands and contracts, especially if they are old and brittle, they are more likely to have potential failures. That’s why we typically see more broken pipes in the summer in Texas.”

Last year’s winter storm also caused pipes to freeze and burst across the state.

“Any severe weather condition will have a potential impact on infrastructure, especially if the ground is moving and things are moving where there are facilities for water and wastewater systems. … It exposes their vulnerabilities,” Fowler said.

In colder states, water infrastructure is typically placed lower in the ground to prevent freezing, something Texas may need to consider in the future. In the meantime, Fowler said, infrastructure upgrades need to happen as soon as possible.

“These projects can’t wait, that’s the problem,” he said. “If you delay investments, or have a project that’s ready to be shelved, it’s going to cost you more money moving forward later.”

Disclosure: Texas Tech University 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 sponsors play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a full list of them here.

Correction, July 8, 2022: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Texas drinking water quality a C- rating. The rating was for the state’s drinking water infrastructure.

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