Texas Storm Lays Bare Clean Water Concerns

By Shannon Roxborough

A deadly winter storm hit Texas and a broad swathe of the southern and central United States last week, knocking out power and leaving millions of residents without electricity, heat and clean water, amid freezing conditions in places unaccustomed to and ill-prepared for such extreme weather.

The storm forced nuclear, natural gas and coal-fired power plants offline, left wind turbines frozen and unable to generate electricity, and interrupted clean water supplies.

At least 70 deaths were attributed to snow, ice and below-freezing temperatures caused by the storm across the country, most in Texas. U.S. President Joseph Biden declared a major disaster in the state.

While the fallout from the massive storm has understandably placed focus on the vulnerability of the state’s power grid, less attention has been given to the fact that the frigid temperatures that gripped a large portion of the country also created shortages of clean water.

As a result of burst water pipes ruptured by record-low temperatures, residents have been left without household drinking water and places like hospitals struggling to maintain sanitary conditions.

In Texas, the nation’s second-largest state, the severe winter weather event caused operational disruptions of service at more than 1,300 public water systems, according to Tiffany Young, spokeswoman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Nearly 15 million people — about half of the state’s population — were under orders to boil tap water before drinking it because low water pressure could have allowed bacteria to enter systems and contaminate local water supplies.

In many homes, taps were completely dry, and bottled water had become scarce due to a spike in demand. Some people were forced to melt snow and boil the resulting water.

More than 1 million gallons (3.8 million liters) were trucked into Austin, the Texas capital. In Houston, the largest city in Texas and fourth-largest in the nation, opened almost a dozen sites to distribute free water to residents.

The water crisis in Texas and other U.S. states highlight what once thought to be a problem chiefly associated with developing countries as climate change and human factors have contributed to water insecurity in industrialized nations.

“Unfortunately, what happened due to the snowstorm is a sign of things to come as more places face clean water issues. In addition to population growth putting a strain on water systems, we’re seeing a trifecta of other issues: global climate change, aging and deteriorating infrastructure and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Peter Macy, president and founder of ROCKBlue. “This has resulted in a changing dynamic in the world of water and sanitation that has reached every corner of the globe, even in wealthy countries.”

Aging infrastructure in the United States has left the country’s water network with pipes up to a century old, resulting in some 240,000 water main breaks each year across the country, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers Infrastructure Report Card. In most cases, water pipes have reached the end of their life spans; in others, they were simply not built to withstand the freezing weather conditions.

The breaks waste of over two trillion gallons of treated drinking water, and the World Water Works Association estimates that local governments will need to spend $1 trillion on water and sewer pipes over the next 25 years to maintain water systems and meet growing demand.

Water system failures in the United States against the backdrop of the severe impact of the winter storm have cast a spotlight on whether water utilities and governments are doing enough to prepare for natural disasters and the increasing frequency and intensity of severe weather due to a changing climate.

The water crisis is a global phenomenon, and the recent storm that ravaged the southern United States has underscored the gravity of the problem.

“Water problems on a large scale are costly whether citizens lose access to water and sanitation or retain access through short-term emergency measures. This affects both people’s lives and economies,” Macy said. “The irony is, these short-term impacts end up costing more than long-term measures to combat climate change, as well as strategic infrastructure planning and development.”

Change, Macy says, can’t come fast enough. “The tragic events caused by the storm,” he said, “are a wake-up call that no place can take clean water for granted.”

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Veteran writer and journalist Shannon Roxborough is chief marketing officer of ROCKBlue, where he writes about the intersection of global water and sanitation, international development, sustainability and the environment. An authority on globalization and world affairs, in a more than 30-year career he has written about topics ranging from international business, investing and geopolitical trends to expatriate lifestyle issues, travel and renewable energy. His writing, commentary and research has been featured in Money, The Record, Reuters, Barron’s and The New York Times, among many others. He can be reached at roxboroughs@rockblue.org.