By Elena Bruess, Circle of Blue
After days without power, millions in Texas are now facing a water crisis.
Freezing temperatures have caused pipes to burst. Power outages have halted water treatment plants and decreased water pressure in distribution systems. City officials in Austin, Abilene, Houston and elsewhere are alerting people to boil their water before drinking it or to purchase bottled water if their power is out.
A massive winter storm that caused widespread blackouts across the state has left millions without heat and electricity and has been linked to over 30 deaths as of Thursday morning. The state’s electric grid, which relies heavily on natural gas, was overwhelmed by high demand for heat coupled with historically low temperatures that froze natural gas pipes. The entire electric power system in Texas was not prepared to handle the freezing weather. President Biden declared a state of emergency, but in a press conference Wednesday, Governor Abbott was unclear about when power will be restored for people in the state.
As of Wednesday afternoon, around 590 public water systems in 141 counties had disruptions in service, according to a spokesperson for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality told the Texas Tribune. The disruptions impacted 12 million people.
Low water pressure is affecting hospitals in the Austin area. At St. David’s South Austin Medical Center, low water pressure also caused the facility’s heat to fail since its boiler is water powered. Hospital staff are moving some patients to other hospitals until the issues are fixed, but there is little spare capacity for St. David’s 300 patients.
“Because this is a state-wide emergency situation that is also impacting other hospitals within the Austin area,” David Huffstutler, CEO of St. David’s Healthcare, said in a statement Wednesday. “No one hospital currently has the capacity to accept transport of a large number of patients.”
Other hospitals, such as Ascension Seton Medical Center in Austin, are also working to save water and advising patients to conserve as much as they can.
Related problems have emerged across the state. Houston, Fort Worth, and others this week advised people to boil their water before drinking it or using it to brush teeth or prepare food. For those without tap water, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner advised people to buy bottled water. Low water pressure can cause contaminants to be sucked into underground pipes, a process that can expose clean drinking water to substances that are hazardous to health, like bacteria or pesticides. After water pressure increases again, it can still take a couple days for water systems to clear out contaminants.
As with the power outages, it is not certain when water pressure will return to normal, but for now officials continue to urge people to follow CDC guidelines for boiling water.