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Boil Advisories, Busted Pipes and Low Pressure: Water Problems Hit North Texas After Storm

Dallas Water Utilities asks residents to conserve their water, but it's still safe to drink.EXPAND
Dallas Water Utilities asks residents to conserve their water, but it's still safe to drink.
Jacob Vaughn
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Water in Dallas is safe to consume, but residents in cities across the state are being asked to boil or conserve their water as added demand caused partly by broken water lines and rolling power outages put pressure on the supply. As of Thursday morning, there were more than 840 disruptions to public water systems affecting 13.5 million people statewide, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Jose Velasquez, an international student at the University of Texas Arlington, has been able to hole up at the college since the state came to a freezing halt. While his power was out, he didn't even like going to his home because he was afraid of what condition he'd find it in.

He had electricity until Monday around noon. He left the university for home to cook something and when he walked in the door, he noticed his power was out. Until Wednesday night, his home sat without power in below-freezing temperatures.

That morning, he woke up to a boiling advisory for Arlington. Fearing a busted pipe, he’d left his faucets dripping. But the water pressure is now too weak to drip the pipes. If there was enough pressure to fill a glass of water, he said he would have to boil it before consuming to make sure it’s safe.

“The point is, since my house doesn’t have electricity at all, and I don’t have gas either, how am I supposed to boil water?” Velasquez said. Many are asking themselves the same question.

According to the city, the boil advisory is a precaution required by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality although there has been no indication that the water is dangerous to drink. Increased water demand caused the pressure to plummet. The city said the drop was consistent with a major main break, but one hasn’t been discovered.

Luckily, Velasquez bought a 45-pack of water bottles not long ago. He brought the case back to campus, where there are similar water disruptions.

Velasquez is just one of many having trouble with their water supply. On Thursday morning, Arlington Water Utilities announced residents should see water pressure restored throughout the day and Friday. When the water pressure is back, the city will be able to test it to make sure it’s safe, so they can lift the boil advisory.

Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson and members of the City Council have taken to social media recently to dismiss rumors that the city’s water isn’t safe to drink. On Twitter, Johnson said Dallas Water Utilities is still able to treat and deliver potable water. “There have been some main breaks, but the system is running well overall,” Johnson said.

While discussing the storm fallout during a press conference Thursday morning, other city officials insisted the water was safe.

Dallas Water Utilities Director Terry Lowery said she wanted to ensure residents that Dallas is not under a boil water advisory. She said an average of 30 mains have broken a day in the winter storms, a dramatic uptick from the normal average, which is about three daily. Although the water is safe, Lowery warned of potential disruptions due to main breaks.

More than 200 DWU employees are working around the clock to address water emergencies, she said.

The Dallas Fire-Rescue Department is getting up to 2,800 calls a day, triple their normal daily average. Most of these calls are for water outages and structural fires. They attribute many of the structural fire reports to faulty wiring, poorly maintained fireplaces and alternative sources of heat, such as grills. Fifteen DFR fire stations were without power and some of their above-ground water tanks have frozen.

Michelle Espinal-Embler, a Dallas resident, was lucky enough to get into a hotel when Texas froze over. She’s been checking in on her neighbors throughout the cold, bringing them supplies when she can. Thursday, she stopped by to find the power was back on, but the pipe that delivers the complex of townhouses hot water had burst.

She said the homeowners’ association wasn’t able to reach anyone over the phone to get an ETA on a repair. Until it’s fixed, more than 200 residents who live there won’t have hot water. Some apartment complexes in Dallas are reported without water because of line breaks.

Other cities haven’t been much luckier with their water.

Power outages interfered with the Eagle Mountain Water Plant's ability to treat water for northern Fort Worth residents. They were asked to boil their water or buy bottled water. The boil order was extended to some 212,000 residents and includes several other cities that buy their water from Fort Worth. These include Haslet, Keller, Lake Worth, Northlake, Roanoke, Saginaw, Southlake, Trophy Club and Westlake.

Children, seniors and people with weaker immune systems are particularly vulnerable to harmful bacteria found in untreated water.

Houston, along with the rest of Harris County, is also under a boil water order. According to Houston's website, the city expects to restore water pressure in the next couple of days.

The Texas Tribune also reported that hospitals in Austin are running out of water, forcing some patients to be relocated. Additionally, San Angelo has gone without water for days after city officials announced they found industrial chemicals in the water system, according to The Texas Tribune.

Wednesday night in University Park, there were several water main breaks in rapid succession. The city was already struggling to maintain water levels. Over the last five days, University Park repaired over 30 water main breaks. For comparison, it repaired 35 broken water mains in all of 2020. The latest series of water main breaks forced University Park under a boil advisory.

John LaRue, owner of the local venue Deep Ellum Art Co., said his parents live just a couple of blocks away from the University Park fire station. They've had power pretty consistently. Luckily, LaRue said, his parents didn't drink any of their tap water after the advisory was announced.

If you’re under a boil water advisory but can’t boil your water because the electricity is out and water bottles are inaccessible, there are other options. The grocery chain Natural Grocers is allowing Texans to come in and use its filtration systems to make water safe for consumption. The filtration system uses UV light to disinfect the water. People are asked to bring their own containers to store the water in. The grocery chain has two-gallon limit, although they are not charging for those two gallons. To find the nearest Natural Grocers, click here.

The Environmental Protection Agency also has tips on its website about how to clean water.

There are also several mutual aid funds set up in North Texas for people to donate to and request help. For example, the groups Dallas Stops Evictions and Feed the People Dallas have set up this form for people to request assistance, according to Eater Dallas.

Dallas and some other North Texas cities have told residents to conserve water as systems experienced low levels of storage in their tanks.

“We’re trying to keep up with pace and it is difficult during this winter storm,” Denise Hickey, a North Texas Water Municipal District spokeswoman, told The Dallas Morning News. “If you can skip your shower today, do so.”

To save water, according to Dallas Water Utilities, people should only flush toilets when necessary, wait to do laundry or run the dishwasher, only running full loads, take short showers and don’t fill up the bathtub. It’s OK to leave faucets dripping to prevent frozen pipes, but the agency said people should try to capture some of this water for other uses.

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