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Record-Setting Texas Cold Wreaks Havoc On Aging Water Systems

NORTH TEXAS (CBSDFW.COM/AP) — The sunshine is back and the snow and ice have melted. But more than a week after a deep freeze in Texas and other southern states, many communities are still grappling with getting clean water, or water service at all.

For years, experts have warned of the need to upgrade aging and often-neglected waterworks. Now, after icy weather cracked the region's water mains, froze equipment and left millions without service, it's clear just how much work needs to be done.

Families in Texas stood for hours in lines to get drinking water. They boiled it to make it safe to drink or brush their teeth. They scooped up snow and melted it in their bathtubs. Hospitals collected buckets of water to flush toilets.

The still-unfolding problems have exposed extensive vulnerabilities. Many water systems have decades-old pipes, now fragile and susceptible to breaking. White flight dropped tax revenue in some cities, and a lack of investment has caused problems to become even costlier to fix. Many systems in the South were not built with such low temperatures in mind. But with climate change projected to bring more extreme weather, problems like those seen last week could return.

A 2018 survey by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated $473 billion was needed over 20 years to maintain and improve water infrastructure. In a 2020 report, the American Society of Civil Engineers said a water main breaks every two minutes on average in the U.S., and described "chronic, long-term and insufficient investment." The report warned that the "nation's public health and the economy will be at risk."

Actually, it's already happening.

In Texas, more than 2 million remained under boil water notices Wednesday and 40 public water systems are "nonoperational," affecting 25,000 people, state officials said. At the height of the problems last week, at least 7 million Texans were told to boil their water. The order was finally lifted Sunday for Houston, where millions had endured power and water outages in the nation's fourth-largest city that is more accustomed to hurricanes than winter storms.

As temperatures fell below freezing across the South, residents kept their faucets open to prevent pipes from freezing. But the increased demand taxed the already-struggling systems, and the low water pressure meant that boil advisories were needed until safety tests could be completed.

In Shreveport, where about 200,000 people were being told to boil their water, Mayor Adrian Perkins pointed to "old, aging infrastructure, just like most American cities."

Voters in 2019 rejected Perkins' bond proposal to raise $186 million for infrastructure, including water system repairs and upgrades.

In Tennessee, Memphis Light, Gas & Water said the cold led to problems at pumping stations and ruptures in water mains and service lines. Crews were making repairs and testing for contaminants was being done, but no timetable has been set for a return to normal service.

Problems arose at some of the city's 140 wells that deliver water to reservoirs at eight main pumping stations. Wells failed, several reservoirs froze and engines and motors at pumping stations overheated. The persistent freezing temperatures exposed problems at pumping stations and other parts of the system, some of which dates to the 1930s.

The utility is in the second year of a five-year, $105 million plan to update and strengthen infrastructure. At a news conference Tuesday, utility President and CEO J.T. Young said the plan will be reassessed in light of the recent freeze to make sure it matches the needs that have arisen.

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