Texas’ water infrastructure is crumbling. Will the Legislature invest enough to fix it?

Texas loses billions of gallons of water a year to broken pipes and leaks. The problem is worse in rural areas.

By Sarah AschMay 8, 2023 11:15 am,

It’s no secret Texas has water challenges. The state’s been dealing with an ongoing drought, and on top of that the water infrastructure is in dire straits. 

Reporting by the Texas Tribune found the state has been losing billions of gallons of precious water every year to broken pipes and leaks. And so far in 2023, the state has had about eight boil water notices a day.

During this latest legislative session, state lawmakers have a unique opportunity to inject billions of dollars into the state’s patchwork of local water systems. A bipartisan group of legislators coalesced around water issues back in January under the new Texas House Water Caucus. 

But will that be enough?

Jayme Lozano Carver, who covers the South Plains and the Panhandle for the Tribune, said the leaks and broken pipes are caused by aging infrastructure. 

“Whenever it comes to breaks and leaks, they’re causing the state to lose billions of gallons every year. We actually found that in 2021, the state lost 132 billion gallons of water, which is enough to fill the AT&T stadium 170 times over,” she said. “We’ve seen in multiple areas of the state that it’s just aging beyond repair to the point where now it will cost millions, if not billions, to update a lot of it, depending on how big the water district is.”

Lozano Carver said the rural parts of the state have been hit worse by water issues.

“That comes as a result of two issues — one being the fact that we get our water loss data from water loss audits, the report that the Texas Water Development Board requires, but they only require it [annually] for agencies that serve more than 3,300 [connections],” she said. “And so if you have a rural community that is just a thousand, that’s going to be falling through the cracks.” All other retail public water suppliers are required to submit an audit every five years.

Rural communities are also facing population decline, which means fewer tax dollars to fix problems with infrastructure.

Another factor impacting the state’s water? Climate change. 

“Especially as we’re seeing more droughts, a lot of hotter summers lately,” Lozano Carver said. “A lot of those conditions can really impact the infrastructure, as well. And it’s part of what happened last summer in Odessa when they had a waterline break that disconnected their water services for 48 hours.”

Some solutions have been proposed at the Legislature, including Senate Bill 28, which Lozano Carver said is the most encompassing water bill the lawmakers are considering this year. 

However, the bill won’t help communities along the border that live in colonias.

“A lot of the funds that they that that bill allocates won’t reach them,” Lozano Carver said. “Whenever you look at the colonias, we have more than 1,300 in Texas and they lack basic services. And somehow that’s still being overlooked, even as we are focusing on water infrastructure.”

Senate Bill 28 creates funds that will cover both infrastructure issues and also bring in new water supplies to the states. The exact amount of money to be spent on these two projects still remains to be seen.

“They’ve just said it’ll be billions of dollars,” Lozano Carver said. “Part of that, too, is that it comes with a constitutional amendment. So voters will actually be the ones to decide if this is a worthy investment or not.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to say that agencies with more than 3,000 connections are required to submit water loss audits annually; other retail public water suppliers submit every five years.

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