Houston officials say state made the call on water boil notice

Isaiah Chirip helps push a pallet of bottled water during a water distribution and free flu vaccination event at the Holman Street Baptist Church in Houston on Nov. 28, 2022. (Mark Felix For The Texas Tribune, Mark Felix For The Texas Tribune)

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Houston officials weren’t convinced that a brief power outage at a water treatment plant created the kind of risk that warranted a day-and-a-half-long boil-water notice but were overruled by state regulators, city officials said Tuesday.

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Nearly all of the city’s 2.2 million water customers were under a boil-water notice for more than 36 hours after two transformers at Houston’s East Water Purification Plant went offline at about 10:30 a.m. Sunday.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality ultimately required the boil-water notice for the nation’s fourth-largest city, after the state and city went back and forth for around four hours on Sunday afternoon. The decision was announced shortly after 6:40 p.m.

The boil-water notice was ultimately lifted Tuesday morning.

Asked in a livestreamed interview with Texas Tribune Editor-in-Chief Sewell Chan on Tuesday whether the city felt pressure from the state to issue a boil water notice, Mayor Sylvester Turner said that the city consulted with TCEQ and provided data, but that “in the end, the state will call it.”

“I’m OK with that, out of an abundance of caution,” the mayor added. Privately, however, a city official said the city felt it was far from clear that the brief power outage posed any safety risk and merited the boil notice.

Turner noted that 29 samples of city water were taken on Monday morning. All 29 came back free of “any bacteria [or] any sort of contaminants.”

And while Gov. Greg Abbott said on Sunday afternoon that the state would do all it could to expedite the testing of the water samples, city officials said the TCEQ did not respond as quickly as it could have.

In an email, a TCEQ spokesperson said the boil-water notice was mandated by state administrative code, which applies to all water systems in the state.

“The rule requirement is based on minimum required pressures, not associated elapsed time of the pressure drop,” said Stella Wieser, a TCEQ media relations specialist.

Power went out at Houston’s East Water Purification Plant after two transformers — the main one and the backup — went offline at about 10:30 a.m. Sunday due to a ground fault, prompting water pressure levels to drop below required minimums. The outage was caused by the city’s equipment, according to CenterPoint Energy, which delivers power to the city of Houston.

Turner said he ordered a diagnostic assessment of the equipment, but that it was a “unique set of circumstances.”

“I will tell you, as much as we rely heavily on equipment, every now and then, that equipment will fail,” he said.

Low water pressure can hurt water quality and can be a threat to public health. A reduction or loss of pressure in a water distribution system can result in backflow, when water flows in the wrong direction, allowing contaminants to enter drinking water. Turner noted Tuesday that in the past, the city has issued boil water notices when pressure was down for a matter of hours — such as during the 2021 winter storm or after a major pipe rupture. In this case, 14 sensors showed low water pressure for less than two minutes and two more showed low pressure for less than 30 minutes.

“So it’s not like we lost pressure throughout the system,” Turner said. “And so the question is, in that particular case with these particular circumstances, do you want a boil water notice or not?”

This week’s case “was far different than the previous two,” Turner said. “Let me just leave it like that.”

Houston officials have been criticized because hours passed between the outage and the city’s decision to issue a boil-water notice. The notice was communicated through a media advisory at 6:44 p.m. and then a tweet at 7:27 p.m., but many residents didn’t find out until later that evening. Some first heard the news from school districts announcing that school would be closed Monday.

In the interview, Turner said the city waited to issue the advisory until it was certain that the step was necessary. Announcing the power outage without context, he said, would have confused people.

Turner said Tuesday that he asked the head of the city’s homeland security department to alert residents of a citywide boil-water notice via text message, but that communication didn’t happen as soon as he would have liked.

“We are addressing that situation,” Turner said.

He later said, “We can always do better and will seek to do better.”

At least four area school districts closed Monday in response, and water customers were told to boil water for at least two minutes before preparing food, drinking, bathing or brushing their teeth.

“At the end of the day, it was a great inconvenience for many, but I’m glad we’re at this point,” Turner said.

Alejandra Martinez contributed reporting.

Disclosure: CenterPoint Energy 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.