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“It’s after the storm that’s the hardest part”: 390,000 Texans still don’t have clean water

The past year has further revealed the vulnerability of our water systems to extreme weather and climate change.

Jugs and cases of water sit on the ground, with volunteers working in the background and a car parked to the right.
Volunteers prepared to hand out water during a water distribution event at the Fountain Life Center on February 20, 2021, in Houston, Texas.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

As of Monday morning, it had been two weeks since Helen McCanick and her neighbors in Wharton, Texas, had running water. The freezing temperatures brought by Winter Storm Uri burst their pipes and broke the motor running their well.

McCanick has spent the days since the storm traversing neighboring towns, searching for the pipe and motor parts needed to restore her water. “I am very tired of running from place to place, I really am,” she said from the parking lot of yet another hardware store.

To cook and flush the toilet, the 73-year-old has had to resort to using donated water or heavy buckets she hauls from a local church. And with replacement parts in short supply after the storm, McCanick still doesn’t know when she’ll get her water back.

“You went through the storm, and now it’s after the storm that’s the hardest part,” she said.

Even after the electricity came back on in most homes as of February 19, water problems have lingered on a large scale. As of Monday, nearly 390,000 Texans were still being told to boil their water due to safety concerns after the storm disrupted utility water supplies, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). And that number doesn’t include the people, like McCanick, who can’t get water because their pipes broke in the cold — an issue that has affected thousands of homes in Houston alone.

The widespread failures in Texas reflect the domino effect that happens in many disasters, as power failures lead to breakdowns in water systems, putting people’s health and food security in danger. And Texas isn’t alone: Extreme weather — in some cases directly linked to climate change — has impacted water access for days, months, or even years in other states, including in the fire-ravaged West.

And yet, the long-term impacts of disasters on water systems often get less attention than the initial disaster.

For instance, the devastating Camp Fire in Paradise, California, made headlines in 2018 as the deadliest fire in the state’s history, but few know that 40,000 people were initially told to boil their water after the fire. And later, when carcinogenic chemicals were identified in the town’s pipes, Paradise residents were told not to drink their water at all — it wasn’t until more than six months after the fire that water access started to be restored.

As climate change increases the threat of extreme weather and disasters, it’s clear our infrastructure systems need to be able to withstand new pressures. And there’s a lot to learn from the latest water crises in Texas and California to avoid the next fiasco.

What caused the water failures in Texas

At the height of the water crisis on February 19, nearly 15 million people across Texas lost access to clean water, according to Gary Rasp, a spokesperson for TCEQ. This number reflects the problems that occurred in the water system itself, rather than in people’s homes.

Emily Grubert, an assistant professor of environmental engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, explained how the crisis rippled from the electricity grid to the water system. As the storm hit, the rapidly escalating blackout on February 15 forced water treatment plants offline. At the same time, the freezing temperatures broke water mains and people started to turn on their faucets to prevent their pipes from freezing.

Due to the combination of a drop in supply from treatment plants failing and the increase in water demand from dripping faucets and leaks, the pressure dropped in the system.

A loss in pressure can lead to dangerous bacteria in the water supply, so millions of people were told to boil their water before drinking or cooking with it. Of course, this was an impossibility for those who were also hit by the power outage and lacked electricity to power their stove.

The winter storm didn’t just cause water issues in Texas. From Oklahoma City to Jackson, Mississippi, hundreds of thousands of people also faced water shortages due to dropping water pressure.

Beyond these systemic failures, people like McCanick have also been dealing with problems closer to home, which aren’t reflected in the official numbers. One of the biggest issues has been broken pipes. In buildings not designed to weather the plunge in temperatures — from schools to houses — pipes froze and burst, sometimes dramatically, as captured in viral TikTok videos of flooded houses. Corinne Whitehead, a 70-year-old resident of San Antonio, told Vox she heard the squish of water on her floor as she stepped back into her apartment after the storm to find her pipes had burst.

On February 22, 2021, Troy Watts, a service technician, discussed damage in Willie Hunt’s home after his pipes burst in Houston, Texas.
Callaghan O’Hare/Washington Post/Getty Images

And in some cases, residents have been without water for weeks because of a confluence of failures.

In the rapidly gentrifying Riverside neighborhood in Austin, Rebecca Sanchez told Vox that many of the residents in her apartment complex, the Hillside Villas, have been left without any running water for two weeks after pipes burst. Repairs have been slow, and Sanchez said the property managers have failed to provide adequate emergency water supplies in the interim. In response, she and other tenants organized a small protest last Tuesday, which the management tried to shut down by calling the police.

Afterward, the property managers accelerated the repairs, but Sanchez said half of the buildings still did not have water access as of Monday, while other properties in the area were back up and running. Further complicating matters, the city also discovered a broken water main near the complex on Friday, making the timeline for restoration of water access even less clear. The Hillside Villas property managers did not respond to a request for comment before publication.

For Sanchez, the water crisis has shown how the burden of disasters often compounds existing inequities. “It is mostly Black and brown [people’s] apartments and parts of the city that are feeling this,” she said. “There were entire white communities that never lost power and never lost water.”

Extreme weather threatens Western states’ water supplies

From the hurricanes that have hit the Gulf Coast to the wildfires that have spread across the Western US, many other communities have found themselves without clean water in the wake of recent disasters.

Just as widespread leaks and overuse caused the water system to fail after Winter Storm Uri, when houses or pipes burn in a wildfire, water pressure in distribution pipes can drop and can create a vacuum, sucking in contaminants. It was only after a resident smelled a strange odor in their tap water after the 2017 Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, California, that scientists first uncovered such widespread chemical contamination (benzene in that case) in water systems after wildfires.

Since then, contamination after fires has led to thousands of people in a rising number of communities being put under “do not boil, do not drink” notices. This happened recently after the CZU fire struck Boulder Creek near Santa Cruz, California, in August, burning a 7-mile stretch of plastic water pipe. And like the lingering problems in Texas, these water systems have not been easy to rehabilitate.

In Boulder Creek, it took months for the water company to clear the system of the benzene — a dangerous carcinogen — initially detected, and conduct extensive testing to ensure it was really gone.

In the interim, Boulder Creek residents like Sophia Lwin-McGee were forced to live without tap water. She and her family hauled a 5-gallon water jug from a water spigot in town and tried to rely on that water or bottled water to drink, cook, and bathe.

Sitting on her deck overlooking the remains of a burnt redwood forest, Lwin-McGee told me in October that the lack of safe water access wasn’t something she expected in the US. “I feel like I’m back in Burma,” she said. “I left there when I was a kid to avoid this situation. But you know — take water, go to town, get water, bring it back — like, we are doing that every other day.”

Even after the local water company officially announced their water was safe, she and her family said they would continue avoiding the tap water as much as possible, at least for a year.

“I just can’t put myself and my son and my husband in that risk,” Lwin-McGee said. “So we are just going to have to buy bottled water to drink and cook with until, you know, we feel that it is safe.”

In August 2020, the CZU fire came to the very edge of Sophia Lwin-McGee’s property, burning her fence and leaving a carpet of ash.
Lili Pike/Vox
On October 2, 2020, Sophia Lwin-McGee showed me the 5-gallon water jug her family was using at the time to carry water from town.
Lili Pike/Vox

With climate change causing drier, hotter falls in the Western US, the conditions for extreme fires and impacts to water systems are increasing, according to a 2020 study published in Environmental Research Letters.

Stefan Cajina, a drinking water section chief for California’s State Water Resources Control Board, said he’s witnessed these changes firsthand. “I think in the last half-decade we have really seen an escalation in how [wildfires in] the wildland-urban interface can have an impact on water systems and communities in general,” he told me this fall. (Residential areas like Paradise and Boulder Creek that are on the edge of forests are described as the WUI, or wildland-urban interface, and are the most vulnerable to destructive fires.)

These rising threats mean fortifying infrastructure to handle extremes is all the more important. But Emily Grubert points out that even where climate change isn’t definitively linked to the extreme weather event, as is the case with the winter storm in Texas, the fundamental need for more resilient infrastructure is clear.

“We underinvest in maintenance to such a degree that these disasters tend to be pretty catastrophic,” she said. The failure of infrastructure is still being felt by the 390,000 people boiling their water in Texas today, and the nearly 2,000 people whose utilities were still not delivering water at all as of Friday, according to TCEQ.

“Adapting to extreme events and adapting to climate change is going to make all of this harder, but that’s not the only thing that is a problem,” Grubert said. “What we are really starting to have to face is this kind of combined issue where we have failed to invest in these systems for a very long time, and now we are also playing on hard mode.”