April 23, 2024
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By DYLAN BADDOUR

While dry soils contract and underground pipes burst, cities are forced to fix thousands of leaks. This frustrates conservation efforts, and highlights the vulnerability of vital infrastructure due to climate change.

Many Texas cities have suffered the hottest summer ever recorded, resulting in millions of dollars of damage to their municipal plumbing. They also lost huge amounts of water due to a severe drought.

The state’s authorities are struggling to control widespread water leakage, even though they have urged water conservation and restricted outdoor use. Texas’s water system impacts highlight both the vulnerability and high cost of adapting to climate change.

The intense heat and the drop in rainfall has dried the soil up, causing the water pipes to shift, said Erin Jones. Houston had its hottest ever summer this year. When the pipes move, they can cause the joints to break and leak water.

Jones said that the city of Houston, which budgets almost $20 million annually for water line repairs, has authorized an additional $33 million in spending this year to bring in contractors to help municipal workers with repairs. In 2022 there were only 300 calls at around this time. Jones stated that the city budgets nearly $20 million per year for repairs to water lines. This year, an extra $33 million has been authorized to hire contractors to assist municipal workers in repairs.

The brittleness and age of the pipes, as well as the high demands on the water infrastructure in the city, are also contributing factors to leaks. This is despite all the appeals for conservation and the directives. Jones stated that “the demand for the system is increasing due to increased leaks and customers using more water.”

Texas loses billions of gallons and millions of dollars each year due to leaking pipes. Texas’ water utilities have reported that in 2021, which is the latest year with data available, 30.6 billion gallons of water were lost due to leaks and breaks. Texas Water Development Board (a state-run water authority) estimated that an additional 101.6 billion gallon of loss was not reported in 2021.

In 2021, these losses accounted for 12 percent of all reported water usage and cost an estimated $266 millions (which includes the cost to produce the lost water but not repairs of broken pipes). Texas experienced below-average temperatures in the summer of that year and almost no drought. This year’s figures, which won’t be released until 2024 are expected to reflect much higher losses and costs.

Texas experienced record temperatures in the summer of this year. The heatwave that swept across China, Morocco and Bolivia also broke records. This made it the hottest summer on record since 1940.

U.S. Drought Monitor shows that more than 50% of Texas is experiencing “severe” drought, while nearly a third are in “extreme” drought. The water level within aquifers and reservoirs has been dropping alarmingly.

John Nielsen-Gammon is the director of Texas A&M University’s Southern Regional Climate Center. He says that this was Texas’ second-hottest summer ever, behind 2011. For meteorologists, the summer is from June to August.

Houston was not the only city that experienced extreme heat. San Antonio was one of them. Water mains broke an average of 470 times per month between January and June, but then increased to 725 during July and to 1,076 during August due to the extreme heat.

This does not include the cost of repairs on pipes that are located in private properties and connect water mains with homes or businesses. Anne Hayden is a San Antonio Water System spokesperson. She said, “It has been a tough summer.”

According to Laredo’s city water utility (which is the water company), the water system in Laredo spent $464,00 on 89 repairs of water mains in July and august, which was up from $106,000 for 72 repairs made in 2021.

Even a small break in a pipe can cost hefty amounts of money, as pipes are usually located beneath roads. According to Joe Hoepken of Austin Water, an engineer who supervises repairs, the cost to repair a pipe can range from $5,000 up to $10,000.

Hoepken explained that a typical repair involves tearing into the asphalt or concrete. Then, it is a matter of cutting off a few inches of the damaged pipe and wrapping a newer section.

Austin has repaired 464 mains of water and service lines between July and August. This is up from the 300 that were fixed in 2021, and 435 by 2022.

KOSA News in West Texas reported a spike in the number of water main breakages that disrupted service in Midland at the end of last month. KJTL News in North Texas reported an increase of the same kind in Wichita Falls.

Perry Fowler of Texas Water Infrastructure Network (a lobbying group for the water sector) said that Texas cities had been struggling with costs to address water leaks even before the damage this summer.

He stated that the Texas Water Fund, a fund of $1 billion that would provide funding for water and wastewater projects in the entire state was created with this goal in mind by the legislators. In a November referendum, voters will vote on this measure known as Proposition 6.

Fowler stated that the fund will help to finance the repairs of leaks but it won’t fix the problem.

He said that while the amount was significant, it wasn’t enough to create a water infrastructure renaissance for Texas. The challenges with the old infrastructure in Texas are numerous.

Disclosure: San Antonio Water System, Texas A&M University, and other organizations have contributed to The Texas Tribune. The Texas Tribune is a non-profit, non-partisan news organisation that receives funding from corporate sponsors, members and foundations. The journalism of the Tribune is not affected by financial supporters. You can find a list here.

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