Boil-water alerts in Texas on the rise for many reasons

DALLAS (AP) — A glass of drinking water hasn't been easy to come by lately for the 320,000 people in Corpus Christi.

The Texas Gulf Coast city has issued three orders in less than a year telling residents to boil their water to ensure it's safe to consume, including a two-week order this month that sparked outrage, contributed to the city manager's resignation and renewed questions about how to fix the problem.

Corpus Christi is one of many U.S. communities coping with water problems caused by aging infrastructure. With costly upgrades unrealistic for many cash-strapped cities, including Corpus Christi, the water problems seem likely to persist.

"We're talking about supplying water in the year 2016, and we're having these problems over and over again," dentist Rene Vela told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. "It's starting to affect my family, my employees and I'm sure the rest of the city. It's ridiculous."

The issues of safe drinking water and eroding infrastructure gained widespread attention in recent months due to the crisis in Flint, Michigan, where lead pipes contaminated the water supply after the city switched from a metropolitan Detroit system to improperly treated Flint River water in 2014 while under state management.

In Texas alone, there were 1,550 boil-water advisories last year, up from about 1,100 in 2012 and 650 in 2008, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Fourteen Texas cities with populations exceeding 100,000 have issued at least one boil-water advisory in the last five years. Other U.S. metro areas have had similar problems: In recent years the residents of Toledo, Ohio, a city of 400,000, were told not to drink the water after toxins penetrated the system, and the Seattle suburb of Mercer Island avoided tap water for nearly a week after elevated levels of E. coli were found.

Greg DiLoreto, past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, said an additional $105 billion must be spent to modernize water and wastewater treatment facilities in a country that sees 240,000 water main breaks a year. But it's a tall order in light of how the upgrade burden falls largely on local water utilities, many of which serve only a few hundred or even a few dozen customers.

"If you want fewer incidents and you want quality water, you're going to have to increase water rates," DiLoreto said. "We're not understanding the true cost of operating, maintaining and replacing a full water utility."

DiLoreto and other water quality experts say that while the increase in boil-water notices in many states reflects problems with failing public utility systems, they also speak to new rules and greater transparency in notifying the public when water quality may be undermined.

As Steve Via with the American Water Works Association explains, "It does eventually work its way back to an aging infrastructure because if the public isn't aware of the consequences of not taking care of our drinking water then they're not supporting the investment to keep it up to date and improving on it."

There are many reasons a city's water quality can be compromised, among them broken water mains, loss of pressure, high bacteria levels and weather-related causes. Several appear to apply to Corpus Christi.

The city's latest advisory, which ended Wednesday, was largely a precautionary measure taken after nitrogen-rich runoff from rain flowed into the water system, resulting in low chlorine disinfectant levels in the water supply. Corpus Christi typically receives about 10 inches of rain by this time of year, but 2016 has been unusually wet with more than 18 inches, according to the National Weather Service.

Previous boil-water notices were issued in July and September, the first for elevated levels of E. coli and the second for low chlorine levels, the Caller-Times reported. The notices mirror two others that were issued in 2007. In some cases, various parts of the city were affected, and in others, such as the most recent one, the notice was citywide.

City crews have worked to reconfigure some mains to ensure that water keeps circulating and to prevent bacteria growth. But an overarching concern is an old water system where more than half of 225 miles of cast-iron pipe needs to be upgraded, according to the newspaper. Many of the pipes were installed in the 1950s and when they decay they're prone to collapse or to slow water flow, allowing bacteria to fester.

A fear for civic leaders is that the recurring advisories could cause long-term harm to the area's vibrant tourism business for its miles of sun-splashed beaches and protected coastline brimming with wildlife.

Mayor Nelda Martinez said at a news conference Wednesday that city staff must do better at identifying problems before they lead to a public health hazard.

"This is a symptom of our significant deferred maintenance challenge — it tells us how much work we have in front of us and where we need to prioritize our resources," Martinez said. "And it's not just about addressing structural needs but looking at how we handle the operational aspects as well."