At first Amanda Fuller thought she was one of the lucky ones. Then the water stopped flowing.
When Texas dropped to single-digit temperatures overnight on Sunday, utility companies across the state began power outages, but Fuller’s home just outside Austin stayed warm and bright.
On Monday, however, when she was preparing a morning snack for her two children, ages 1 and 6, the tap water suddenly “went into a trickle in a few seconds and was gone,” she said. It was found that the frost had broken several water pipes and cut power to the city’s primary water treatment plant.
The family had a small supply of water to get them through summer heat outages, but not nearly enough for a five-day ordeal. On Wednesday, they decided to fill their bathtub with snow to flush the toilet.
To replenish their drinking supplies, they melted snow in the slow cooker and on their grill, boiled the meltwater, and then ran it through a coffee filter to remove any impurities. “We had our own little water treatment system in the kitchen, so to speak,” recalls Fuller. But the process was arduous. The snow was powdery and did not provide much liquid. Filling just one water jug can take three or four hours.
The Fuller’s experience is far from unusual. Last Wednesday, the Texan Environmental Quality Commission reported that 332 local water systems were affected by the storms, meaning 7 million Texans either had no water supply or were receiving potentially contaminated water. Those numbers don’t include the myriad others whose water supplies were fine but whose pipes burst in the frost. The drinking water supply was also taken offline in Ohio.
“We had a nationwide water outage,” said Sharlene Leurig, executive director of Texas Water Trade in Austin, calling freezing “a big wake-up call.”
“It’s not just a hurricane, a drought, a flood, or a cold temperature problem,” she said. “We have a resilience problem.”
This is a far cry from the first extreme weather event in the US to affect access to drinking water. Hurricane Katrina affected the drinking water supplies for millions of people in Louisiana and Mississippi. Some New Orleans residents were instructed to boil their water for over a year after the storm to ensure it was safe to drink.
Hurricane Maria put the water at risk for 2.3 million people when it hit Puerto Rico in 2017. The wildfires that set California on fire over the past few summers spewed poisonous ash that settled in the water supply, raising concerns about contamination.
This is also far from a US phenomenon. As the world warms, cities like La Paz, Bolivia, and Cape Town have had to ration water as extended periods of drought depleted their water supplies. In low-lying areas of Bangladesh, rising sea levels threaten to inundate agricultural land and groundwater reservoirs.
“Rather, the main difference from water is that the problem of dealing with extremes increases,” said Barton Thompson, professor of natural resources law at Stanford University.
During periods of high heat, too little water can cause water pressure to drop, which can be a problem for aging pipes. On the other hand, large storms can overwhelm sewer systems with too much water and cause pollutants to flow into waterways and even reservoirs.
In the United States, the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 requires states to establish contingency plans that are then approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. Yet governments are regularly caught by surprise, wrote Aaron Colangelo, chief litigation attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), in a blog post on the Texas crisis.
“States have been negligent in writing and updating plans, or the EPA has not adequately reviewed those plans, or both,” he said. “That has to change before the next disaster threatens access to clean water.”
Erik Olson, water expert at NRDC, explained the steps the US should take to strengthen the water infrastructure. These include burying pipes deeper, placing reservoirs at higher elevations so gravity can aid delivery in the event of a power failure, and building sewage treatment plants high enough not to flood in storms – a common problem after hurricanes .
Travis Isbell, a 32-year-old fourth generation rancher from Florence, Texas, said he was “fully” done relying on the government for water.
The service in his area was open Tuesday through Sunday. To keep his cattle hydrated, he had to drive them to rivers or underground tanks and chop them through layers of ice. Where those were not available, he drove up to a 60-mile round trip to get water from other sources.
Now he will “look into various water storage options so as not to be so dependent on the supply district,” he said.
The crisis has opened Amanda Fuller’s eyes in another way. As the director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Texas Coast and Water Program, she was already familiar with the state’s water problems. “It’s just so different when you and your family and one-year-old don’t take a bath and deal with the uncertainty of not knowing when it will end day after day,” she said. “You just can’t take water for granted for a day.”
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