Failing infrastructure, drought and floods: Texas’ top 10 water stories of 2022

For Texas’ water sector, 2022 was a rough year. Stories about failing infrastructure, drought and even floods captured state headlines. Many of these stories were grim and endured by millions across the state.

Texans had to live without or boil their water, flee rising floodwaters, watch their livelihoods wither and die, or escape searing wildfires. Each of these crises came at the cost of community and economic vitality and, in some terrible instances, human life.

But not all headlines were grim. This year included stories about progress made towards developing new water supplies for a growing, thirsty and drought-prone state. Despite this progress, the major stories of 2022 — particularly those about failing water systems and drought — point towards the need for increased investment in water infrastructure.

Here’s a look back at the top 10 water headlines of 2022:

1. Austin residents boil water, again February 2022 

An operator error at the city’s water treatment plan resulted in a boil water notice for over one million people in the Austin metropolitan area. Even though the duration of the boil water notice was short, this was Austin’s third boil water notice in four years, which is unusual for large cities. The result was a crisis in confidence in Austin’s water system. 

2. Aging infrastructure plagues Laredo February–March 2022  

In mid-February a 50-year old, corroded water main broke in Laredo, decreasing water pressure in parts of the city’s water system and prompting the city to issue a boil water notice to customers. Nearly two weeks later, in early March, the notice was finally lifted after the city completed repairs. This was the sixth boil water notice issued in Laredo since 2019.  These issues resulted from an aging city water system in need of maintenance, repair, redesign and replacement.

3. Texas burns March–July 2022 

Severe drought conditions fueled an early start to the state’s wildfire season in March, when several major fires, including the Eastland County Complex Fire, raged across the state. In May, drought and extreme heat contributed to another series of major wildfires that scorched thousands of acres in West and North Texas.

By late July, the Texas A&M Forest Service had responded to 6,500 wildfires that destroyed 575,000 acres of land. Texas’ extreme fires season coincided with the release of the First Street Foundation’s wildfire risk assessment, which found that nearly 10 million properties in Texas, 82% of all state properties, are at risk of being affected by wildfire over the next 30 years.

4. Odessa lives without water June 2022  

An aging pipe ruptured beneath Odessa, leaving over 165,000 residents without water for 48 hours. Many residents turned to bottled water or groundwater wells to meet their immediate water needs. This incident underscored the liabilities associated with aging water infrastructure: major break-downs can contribute to significant upsets in city life.

5. Drought decimates Texas’ cattle herd July 2022 

Drying pastures and scarce hay supplies prompted many ranchers to sell their cattle. By July, the rate of cattle liquidation approached 2011 drought numbers, which reduced the size of Texas’ herd to levels not seen since the 1950s. Other agricultural industries affected by summer drought conditions included recreational fishing, cotton and other staple crops.

6. Lower Rio Grande Valley water crisis August 2022

Severe drought conditions gripped the Rio Grande Valley throughout 2022.  In August, the water levels in Falcon Reservoir dropped to 9.4%, threatening the availability of water supplies for downstream communities. By mid-August, many faced the threat of imminent disaster where they would have no water available. Fortunately, late August rains provided some relief, and Lower Rio Grande Valley communities were able to avoid the fate of Monterrey in northern Mexico, which ran out of water this summer. As of December 2022, Lake Falcon was 14.6% full.

7. Dallas floods August 2022 

On the heels of a withering drought, Dallas endured a record-breaking flood. Within 24 hours, Dallas received as much rain as it normally does during an entire summer. Intensity of rainfall in certain parts of Dallas contributed to a 1,000-year flood event, inflicting an estimated $6 billion in flood-related damages. The Dallas flood came after storms of similar magnitude hit St. Louis and Kentucky earlier in the summer.

8. Concan’s water arrives by truck August 2022

By late summer, severe drought conditions caused the majority of the City of Concan’s groundwater wells to go dry, forcing the small community 85 miles west of San Antonio to impose drastic water restrictions. In a desperate effort to augment its dwindling water supplies, the City spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to truck water in from neighboring communities. In the meantime, the Frio River, a major tourist attraction for Concan, stopped flowing.

9. Lake Bois d’Arc is born October 2022

After decades of planning and several years of construction, Lake Bois d’Arc became the first new major water storage reservoir to impound water in Texas in over 30 years. The reservoir was built in northeast Texas by the North Texas Municipal Water District to serve growing water demands within its service region. Construction of the reservoir’s dam began in 2018, and the lake began capturing inflows in April 2021. Lake Bois d’Arc is expected to contribute nearly 70 million gallons per day to the North Texas Municipal Water District’s  service area.

10. Millions of Houstonians boil water November 2022 

At the end of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, a power outage at a treatment plant lowered the pressure for Houston’s water system, prompting the city to issue a boil water notice to its 2.2 million customers.  Houston’s boil water notice forced several school districts to cancel classes for several days. The story raised other issues with Houston’s water system, including the increased incidence of water line breaks and service interruptions due to aging infrastructure.  

And because a list of top ten water headlines wasn’t enough for a busy year like 2022, here are three runners-up:

1. Zebra mussels eradicated from Lake Waco (for now) April 2022  

Zebra mussels are an invasive species, known to destroy aquatic ecosystems and wreck water infrastructure. In April, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department announced that it successfully eliminated a growing zebra mussel colony in Lake Waco. Zebra mussels were first introduced to Texas by a contaminated boat in Lake Texoma in 2009 and have since spread to infect 28 Texas lakes and reservoirs.

2. Corpus Christi’s desalination plans inch forward September–October 2022  

In September, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality voted to approve a discharge permit for the Port of Corpus Christi’s planned seawater desalination facility. A few weeks later in early October, the Commission approved a separate permit for the City of Corpus Christi’s desalination plant. Both the City and the Port are racing to develop seawater desalination facilities in an effort to provide new water supplies for a growing industrial base.

3. Zavalla’s water system fails November 2022 

Leaking pipes contributed to the shutdown of the City of Zavalla’s water system, forcing the businesses and schools in the small, East Texas town to close. Residents had to boil their water for weeks once service was restored. This story underscored the bigger issue of leaking, aging water systems in Texas. A report released by the Texas Living Waters Project revealed that Texas loses approximately 572,000 acre feet of water — an amount equal to a large storage reservoir — through leaking pipes every year.