The water is back on in most of Odessa – but still not drinkable – following a water line break Monday that affected nearly 165,000 residents in the city and surrounding area during a stretch of triple-digit heat. A boil-water notice is expected to stay in place until Saturday.
Laura Dennis, editor of The Odessa American, joined the Texas Standard to discuss what caused the outage and how residents are coping. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Is the water back on at your house?
Laura Dennis: It is back on at my house.
Do you dare drink it?
No, no. There’s no drinking it unless you boil it first and then let it cool down. You’re not supposed to use it until they lift the boil-water notice, which won’t be today.
What actually happened that caused this pipe to burst in the first place?
Well, probably it looks like the age of the line. We’ve been told a couple of different things about that. It has a life span of, I guess, 40 years, but it’s closer to 60 years old. Also there’s a valve issue, but I believe they were working on repairing that overnight.
Usually a water main burst will cut off part of the city. But it sounds like the whole city lost its water supply – is it all coming through one conduit?
It is not. But the way it was explained was the pipes are a series of capillaries, arteries and veins, and this was a major artery and they had to shut the water off to the entire city because of the risk of things getting into the water that would go on to their homes.
So how did folks cope in Odessa? Tell us a little bit about what actually transpired.
[The water line break] was Monday. But I think some people continued to have water until Tuesday morning, and others were dried up on Monday night. But I got to tell you, people really came together for this. Those who haul water for a living were showing up and letting people fill up buckets and gallons, you know, empty water bottles to take to their homes to use.
How are people in Odessa responding to this? I would imagine some are frustrated. Did they see this as inevitable, or are they blaming city officials for not getting that pipe fixed sooner, or what exactly?
There’s probably a little bit of both. But I think with the age of that system and a lot of things that need to be replaced on it, maybe they’re being given a little bit of grace to get it fixed. And now I think that there is some discussion of using ARPA funds to help shore up some of the other lines that are, you know, 20 years older than they should be.
ARPA funds, what is that?
The [American Rescue Plan Act funds] that the cities got back during COVID. I believe Odessa has $10 million to $12 million that they could possibly use to shore up the water lines. And there’s some talk of that going on right now.
Tell us a little bit more about why the city is under a boil-water notice right now. Sounds like the pipe has been patched at least, or have they replaced it?
They replaced a section of it, and then they’re also replacing a valve. But the boil notice is needed because they are pushing water back through that hasn’t gone completely through their cleanup system. They’re saying there’s all kinds of stuff that got in there when it was open and exposed, and so let the plant completely refurbish, which they’re hoping will happen sometime later today. And then they need 24 hours from the time when the plant is completely recharged to take away that boil water notice. But they’re still going to test for bacteria even after 24 hours. And so people may need to boil water longer than that. We’ll know more after they do the water testing.
With this happening in the heat of summer, what about public trust in the water system and in the way all of this was handled? You haven’t mentioned that anyone’s health was impacted by this.
You know, I guess that we just don’t know yet. Our hospitals had to cancel surgeries; some surgeries are back on today. But for Tuesday and Wednesday, everything was canceled and they were on a diversion protocol, meaning that if people were well enough to go home, they were trying to send them home as quickly as possible because of the situation of not having enough water at the hospital. They are still telling people who are elderly and have health problems or if you have an infant, don’t bathe them in the water until they get those bacteria tests back. Most people here don’t drink the tap water anyway. It’s not delicious water.