A catastrophic water system failure in Jackson, Mississippi has gripped national headlines. There, the confluence of liabilities, including a deteriorating water system, extreme weather and chronic underfunding, precipitated the collapse of the city’s public water system. City residents and businesses, suffering the indignities of dry taps, turned to bottled water as their only water source. Even after service was restored, Jacksonians must boil their water — some of it noticeably discolored — because it remains unsafe to drink.
Texans are not immune from Jackson’s miseries.
Already, our aging, depreciating water and wastewater infrastructure is causing problems. In June, an old water main in Odessa snapped, leaving residents without running water for two days in the West Texas heat. Earlier this year, Laredo residents endured a 13-day boil water notice after a 50-year old, corroded water line broke. These crises come on the heels of the shared, and coldly miserable, experience in February 2021 when frozen pipes and no electricity forced millions of Texans to live days without water.
Still, the data points to an increased likelihood for more crises to come — some on par with what is happening in Jackson.
The American Society of Civil Engineers grades our drinking water infrastructure with a C-. Our wastewater infrastructure rates worse with a D. These low-performing grades are reflective of aging, deteriorating systems, neglect and chronic underinvestment. Moreover, the anticipated increase in extreme weather events, which contributed to the catastrophe in Jackson, will increase the strains on our water and wastewater systems.
The price tag for addressing this crisis is substantial.
The most recent drinking water infrastructure needs assessment conducted in 2015 estimates that $45 billion would be required to upgrade and fix aging drinking water systems over the next 20 years. Needed repairs to our wastewater systems also range in the billions.
Texas administers two federally-funded programs that address some of the issues associated with our crumbling water infrastructure. Although the recently passed U.S. Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides a substantial sum over the next five years, that amount is not enough to fix all of our problems.
Given the magnitude of the problems associated with our infrastructure, an opportunity does exist to address this growing problem.
Jackson’s infrastructure liabilities were known for a long time. There are likely many Texas water utilities on the precipice of a similar disaster as we have seen in Laredo and Odessa already this year. One option could be to follow the approach from other western states in developing an infrastructure plan that identifies and prioritizes funding for water systems that are either failing or at risk of failing. In addition to establishing a plan, the Legislature should consider capitalizing a new state fund, much like the SWIFT program approved by voters in 2013, to help fix our deteriorating systems.
The liabilities with our aging water pipes and plants will only grow worse.
As the catastrophe unfolding in Jackson reveals, the consequences for failing to plan for and invest in needed upgrades come at the price of community vitality, economic prosperity and human dignity.