Tens of thousands of people in Odessa have endured nearly 48 hours without water to drink, wash or flush toilets

Ector County resident Jose Hernandez fills up jugs of water from a fire hydrant that was opened to reduce pressure on the system as city of Odessa Water Distribution crews work to resolve a water crisis this week. A water main line break has left tens of thousands of people in Odessa and surrounding areas without access to water since Monday. (Courtesy Odessa American/Eli Hartman, Courtesy Odessa American/Eli Hartman)

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When a broken main line left all of Odessa without water Monday, Nikki Buchanan drove around town trying to find water for the restrooms in her place of work. She soon started thinking about her children and the lack of water at her home.

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“I have a 4-month-old at home, and I need a way to wash my bottles and my pump to breastfeed,” Buchanan said. “I had to throw out the milk I had pumped, which was very upsetting for me because I could’ve used that for my baby. We had to find a family member who had a water well so I could wash in their bathroom.”

It has been nearly 48 hours since a water line broke in Odessa, leaving the entire city without water amid a dayslong heat wave and bringing the community’s daily lives to a screeching halt. The West Texas city has about 112,000 residents, but the water outage included parts outside the city limits, bringing the number of people affected closer to 165,000, officials have said.

According to Odessa Mayor Javier Joven, the break occurred at 6 p.m. Monday near Tom Green Avenue between 42nd and San Jacinto streets. While maintenance crews were able to repair the break late Tuesday night, officials said the city’s water system needed another 12-14 hours to fully restart and be deemed safe for the community. That process started around 5 a.m Wednesday.

Temperatures in Odessa have been close to 100 degrees since Friday and reached a high of 106 on Sunday. Forecasts show it will stay like that the rest of the week, which has residents hoping the water is back on soon.

“It’s too hot to not have access to water,” Buchanan said. “We pay plenty of money for our water to be clean, and it should be available when we need it.”

The experience of losing water access isn’t entirely new to Buchanan. In West Odessa, where she lives, residents have issues with their water several times a year, she said. The problems range from a lack of water pressure and boil-water notices to losing their water altogether.

“This should never happen. It makes me wish I had a water well at home,” she said. “The constant boil-water notice is a concern as well — no one wants to wash their newborn baby in water that’s supposed to be boiled before.”

As of early Wednesday afternoon, Buchanan’s water still wasn’t on. With this week’s incident and her past experiences with water issues, Buchanan said she hopes the city’s water system will finally get a permanent fix.

During a news conference Tuesday, Tom Kerr, the city’s utilities director, said the line that broke is about 60 years old.

“Aging water systems are common throughout the country,” Kerr said. “It’s often difficult for municipalities to be able to afford to manage those systems as they age. That’s the situation we find ourselves in.”

While there are three water distribution centers across Odessa, some residents have not been able to make it out to a center or wait in the long line for a case of water. Dawn Weaks, pastor of Connection Christian Church of Odessa, said these kinds of emergencies always affect the most vulnerable.

“We’re definitely seeing that when something like this happens, those who already have resources will be fine, but those who struggle daily, they’re overwhelmed by not being able to have their basic needs met,” Weaks said.

The church was hosting its weekly food distribution event, where it provides lunch to at-risk kids during the summer, when the break happened. People were also planning on visiting the Ector County Youth Center, but both events had to be postponed because of the emergency.

Now, the church is working with the city to help distribute water to older adults, people with disabilities and other residents with special circumstances who can’t go to a distribution center.

Weaks said water was running at the church once again on Wednesday, but it’s limited to bathroom use and not for drinking.

“We can flush our toilets now, and that’s not to be taken for granted,” she said.

Greg Williams, president of Odessa College, a public junior college about 2 miles from where the break happened, said students, faculty, staff and youth summer groups were on campus when the water line broke nearby. They had to quickly transition to virtual meetings, he said.

“When you don’t have water, you don’t have the restroom facilities to accommodate your team,” Williams said. “We have students and different camps on campus with different age groups, so people need to be able to use that restroom. If we can’t do that, we can’t function.”

“It’s a tough deal when you wake up in the morning and there’s no water running, and you can’t do the things you normally do,” Williams added. “You’re not prepared for that upheaval.”

Disclosure: Odessa College has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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