2023 Year in Review: Top 10 Texas water stories

If you want a Texan to lean into a conversation, bring up the subject of water. Life with no water, bad water, or unreliable water is an all-consuming, miserable experience. Many Texans have firsthand experience here. And Texas’ peculiar location at the intersection of perpetual drought and biblical floods makes water a topic of existential concern.

2023 ends with plenty of noteworthy Texas water stories. The problems of drought, failing systems, and even cybersecurity breaches garnered headlines. On the positive side, Texas made progress toward addressing our water workforce challenges, developing regional solutions, and expanding the state’s financial strategy for addressing our long-term water infrastructure needs.

Here’s a look back at the Top 10 Texas water stories of 2023.

1. Austin Water’s workforce woes. (January)

After a series of high-profile system failures, including boil water notices and outages, an external audit found that Austin Water faced a significant number of long-term challenges ranging between climate change and internal communications. Foremost among these challenges was that the utility “lacks the staffing capacity to handle extraordinary impending, immediate, and ongoing events.” This story highlighted that the success of any water utility toward meeting a community’s needs hinges on the capacity to hire and retain qualified personnel.

2. Texans don’t trust the tap. (February)

A survey by the Texas Water Trade revealed that many Texans living in rural, low-income and minority communities do not trust the quality of their water. According to the survey, 61% of respondents thought that their water was unsafe to drink, while many found the smell or taste of their water unpalatable. More than half only drank bottled water. These survey results underscore the larger problem of aging, deteriorating water infrastructure across Texas.

3. Rice fields fallow. (March)

As drought conditions continued to grip central Texas into the spring, the Lower Colorado River Authority halted water deliveries from the Highland Lakes to downstream rice farmers. This decision was made in accordance with LCRA’s water management plan, which requires the curtailment of water deliveries to “interruptible” water customers under certain drought and water availability conditions.

4. Toyah: anatomy of a failed system. (March)

The small, rural and low-income city of Toyah endured all the hallmarks of a failing water system: health and safety violations, boil water notices, mismanagement, no operators, and the absence of financial resources to fix the problems. The longform story by Inside Climate News and Marfa Public Radio described the making of one town’s water infrastructure crisis and the herculean efforts needed to fix it. Toyah’s water problems are not unique: many small, rural communities suffer from similar circumstances.

5. Blanco on the edge. (July)

Blanco made national headlines when a pipeline connecting the city to its water source broke, leaving residents with little available water. The city ordered the dramatic curtailment of water consumption, including the prohibition of outdoor watering and industrial use.

6. Jacob’s Well runs dry. (August)

Exceptional drought conditions and increasing groundwater pumping within central Texas stopped spring flows at Jacob’s Well. This was the sixth time in 23 years that water ceased flowing at this popular recreational area, endangering both the local economy and aquatic ecosystem.

7. A very hot drought. (May-November)

Data from the Office of the State Climatologist reveals that this summer was incredibly hot. That heat, in turn, helped fuel the spread of severe drought conditions across the state throughout the summer. By mid-September, over 68% of the state was in the severe-to-worse drought category. In addition to the stress on crops, recreational areas and water supplies, the drought also wreaked havoc on water infrastructure.

8. Regional solutions emerge near Lubbock. (August)

Faced with poor water quality, the residents of four separate water systems near Lubbock elected to work together as a unified entity oriented toward fixing their broken water treatment systems. This regional solution represents an innovative approach toward addressing the problems of fragmentation associated with Texas’ 10,000 water and wastewater systems.

9. Texas voters approved Proposition 6. (November)

With a 77.6% majority, Texas voters approved Proposition 6, creating the Texas Water Fund. This represents the largest expansion of the state’s financial strategy for addressing long-standing water infrastructure challenges in a decade. This historic vote reflected broad recognition of the need to develop water supplies for a drought-prone state and to address the growing problem of aging, deteriorating water systems.

10. Hackers target Texas water utility. (November)

In late November, the North Texas Municipal Water District was targeted in a ransomware attack. While water service was not interrupted, the story underscores that discussions about water infrastructure extend beyond pipes and treatment plants and includes information technology and cybersecurity.

Thanks to the drought, water infrastructure challenges, and the legislative session, 2023 was a noteworthy year for water stories. That said, here are three other stories that deserve an honorable mention.

1. The Texas House Water Caucus forms. (January)

In an effort to help broaden and enhance the Legislature’s understanding of complex water policy issues and support the prioritization of water, the Texas Water Foundation helped form the Texas House Water Caucus. By the end of the regular session, 73 legislators — almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats — joined the Caucus, making it the largest bipartisan caucus in the Legislature.

2. Feds eye listing blind catfish as endangered. (August)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it was considering listing two species of blind catfish found within the Edwards Aquifer as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. If approved, the listing could have significant implications for the San Antonio region’s use of the aquifer.

3. Water workforce solutions move forward. (October)

The Legislature approved a key measure aimed at addressing Texas’ looming water workforce shortage. House Bill 1845 creates a provisional certification program for high school students to enter the water industry workforce. Industry experts hope that the measure will establish a viable workforce pipeline for water utilities across the state.

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