HOUSTON — More than 2 million people in the Houston area were urged to boil their tap water Monday after a power outage at a purification plant prompted the mayor to initiate a review of what went wrong.
The boil order notice tells customers in the nation’s fourth-largest city to boil water before it’s used for cooking, bathing or drinking. Multiple Houston area public and private schools, as well as some local colleges, were closed Monday as a result of the notice, while others made adjustments to provide affected campuses with bottled water and sanitizer.
The notice was issued Sunday, hours after two transformers failed, causing power outages at the water plant, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a press conference Monday. There was no indication the water system had been contaminated.
Water quality testing was underway, Turner said. He said he expects the notice to be lifted by early Tuesday at the latest, once the state’s environmental agency gives an all-clear after analyzing test results.
According to Turner, the city issued a notice, which affects all of Houston and multiple adjacent areas, in an “abundance of caution” after the two transformers — a main one and its backup— “uniquely and coincidentally” failed. The problem affected the plant’s ability to treat water and pump water into the transmission system, resulting in low water pressure.
Because the issue was within the plant’s system, backup power generators would not have made a difference, Turner said. Since the transformers were down, they couldn’t transmit power to the plant.
The power system at the water plant undergoes regular maintenance, Turner said, but he did not give a timeline for how often. The mayor said he has ordered a diagnostic review of the system to understand how this was possible and how it can be prevented.
Sixteen sensors marked dips under the minimum pressure levels required by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality — 14 of them for only 2 minutes and two of them for nearly 30 minutes, Turner said.
Untreated groundwater can enter a water system through cracked pipes when water pressure drops. Customers are told to boil water to kill bacteria that could be harmful.
“We are optimistic the results will come back clean,” Turner said.
Tony Crawford said he hurried to buy water after he heard about the boil notice, as he loaded three cases of bottled water into his vehicle outside a Houston Walmart.
“I have pets, so I decided to come up here and get water,” Crawford said. “It’s never been a water issue for me until today.”
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat who represents parts of Houston, helped distribute water at a flu vaccination site in partnership with a local wellness center, providing water to everyone who received a shot.
The National Association of Christian Churches set up a separate water giveaway, with a limit of one pack of water per household.
Turner defended the decision to warn residents about the water quality several hours after the issue first occurred and apologized for the disruptions to businesses, schools and elective surgeries. He said the dip in pressure did not automatically trigger a water boil notice, but a decision was made to issue one based on the data once the city consulted with and was instructed to do so by TCEQ.
The city will also review how residents were informed of the notice to boil water, Turner said.
Water infrastructure and quality has been a prominent issue in cities large and small throughout the U.S., including Baltimore; Honolulu; Jackson, Mississippi; and Flint, Michigan.
Coronado reported from Austin, Texas.
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