OPINION: Taking care of water systems for the next crisis is our duty

Published 6:00 am Saturday, February 12, 2022

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Last February’s winter storm Uri marked a severe weather event unlike any most Texans have ever faced, leaving millions without power in freezing conditions. As outages persisted, pipes froze, and millions faced water disruptions due to water main breaks, mechanical failures, and frozen or broken water lines. Many were without water for multiple days in various water utility service areas across the state, Texas Water Utilities included.
We are prepared to go above and beyond to help customers during another storm if necessary. Last February, employees stayed overnight at our facilities to ensure operations continued. In Inverness Point, west of Austin, a team laid 1,000 feet of hose uphill for a water intake line. Another team went to a senior living facility in Pflugerville to help run a temporary line–which is not part of our service responsibilities. We also brought in teams from California, Alabama, and South Carolina after the storm to help with restoration and customer service. Our out-of-state teams collectively worked 4,000 overtime hours.
Winter Storm Uri was the ultimate stress test for water and wastewater systems to meet demands, and unfortunately some of these systems failed. Our business continues to take steps to ensure reliable water service during extreme weather conditions.
Throughout the past 25 years, Texas Water Utilities has utilized an Emergency Response Plan and has steadily invested in water and wastewater infrastructure. In 2021, we invested approximately $25 million in repairs, replacements and infrastructure upgrades to keep water safe and flowing in Texas. Immediately after the storm, we accelerated plans across the state to purchase more generators and upgrade current generators at our facilities and reevaluated our Emergency Response Plan to ensure its effectiveness.
The state also saw the importance of these types of improvements and passed Senate Bill 3, which requires water utilities to, among other things, create their own emergency preparedness plans and assure water can be provided during extended emergencies, which entails permanent or portable generators. The bill allows for utilities to work with the state on leasing and contracting more generators, water storage and water supplies. Customers are also better protected as utilities cannot impose late fees or disconnect service for nonpayment during an extreme weather emergency.
We already experienced freezing weather this February, and still have much of the winter season ahead, but there are things you can do to prepare in case of another winter storm. To protect plumbing, wrap or insulate pipes outside and in unheated areas of the home, open cupboard doors during a freeze and patch holes or cracks in walls that could let in cold air. These methods work better than leaving the tap running and they should not increase your next water bill.
For homeowners that have a vacation home or will be out of town, protect water lines and homes from freezing conditions by turning off water utilizing the customer shut off valve. Then, turn on all faucets to drain out the water in the system. Once all water is out, turn off all faucets to be sure there will be no leaks. Broken residential pipes impact a utility’s ability to supply water to others. Doing this process helps water utilities continue to provide water to neighbors.
We must continue to work together to maintain our water infrastructure and invest in the future of Texans. Our state’s population is projected to grow by more than 1,000 people per day, and more capacity will be needed to meet these future demands. Water, and the systems we manage to move it safely to your homes, are a shared resource and taking good care of it for the next crisis is our duty.

Jeffrey L. McIntyre, President of Texas Water Utilities