Opinion: Boil-notice confusion is the rule in Texas, not the exception

Kristen Schlemmer
December 7, 2022

This opinion piece by Legal Director and Waterkeeper Kristen Schlemmer appeared in the Houston Chronicle’s December 4, 2022 print edition. The online version is available here.

I didn’t expect to be at our neighborhood park on Monday, in a sea of other parent-kid pairs. We were all there for the same reason: The boil-water notice had caused schools to close.

On Sunday, a power outage left our main water purification plant without sufficient pressure for a matter of minutes. A map issued by the city seemed to show that all of Houston was affected. It is right to question how a region that lives with increasingly stronger storms could let a power outage cut off our access to clean water for any amount of time. The power outage happened on a sunny day because a transformer failed, as did its backup, but what if it had happened in the middle of a hurricane? Or winter storm? Or the next COVID surge? This underlines, again, the need for serious investment in our water infrastructure.

But this time, dwelling too long on the power outage might lead us to miss the point. As Mayor Turner pointed out at City Council this week, our water was never unsafe. So why were our kids home, and why were we having to needlessly boil water?

For the answer to these and other questions, we can look to the state of Texas. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state’s environmental regulatory body, has set rules on how the city must respond to water disruptions. Confronted with uncertainty over how these rules applied, the city moved forward as if they did, and those triggered likely needless boil-water notices and a long delay while we all waited for TCEQ to give us the signal to turn our taps back on.

In the wake of the boil-water notice, some have rightfully pointed out these rules are “useless” when it comes to protecting human health. The notice came hours after (though well before the state-issued 24-hour requirement) the water may have been affected. Many people didn’t receive the notice at all and Spanish-dominant residents in my circles expressed concerns that they had not seen notices in anything but English. Had there been an issue with contaminated water, it would have been too late for many of the 2.2 million people within the affected service area. (And beyond the issue of the water itself, there’s the question of how many people living in Houston lost wages because schools were closed and had to stay home from work.)

Environmental rules exist for a reason. When they are working, they protect our drinking water; they keep sewage out of our homes, parks and bayous; they ensure our air is clean enough to breathe. But the TCEQ’s management of these regulations often falls short and they don’t do enough to clearly inform people of potential risks. As the Texas Sunset Commission concluded this year in a report to the Texas Legislature, these failures have generated confusion and distrust.

It took a federal civil rights complaint for the TCEQ, late last year, to guarantee access to Spanish-language dominant communities to participate in decisions that affect their environment and health. This should be galling if you live in Houston, where a little more than a third of residents speak Spanish at home, many living in neighborhoods enduring greater burdens of pollution. Even for English-language residents, important notices are difficult to find on the TCEQ website, and documents needed to make sense of the notices are not online but in binders scattered at random libraries across the state or stored only in the record rooms of industrial facilities. And in these poorly managed processes, our ability to make decisions affecting our families’ health is getting buried.

For many of us, this disruption may feel fleeting by the end of the week. But for many others, uncertainty about water and health is an enduring problem. To understand why, we must once again look to the state. More than five years after Harvey, many people in Houston remain vulnerable to floods because of how the Texas General Land Office excluded the city of Houston from a major source of recovery funds for flood mitigation. In considering the impact of this exclusion, it is important to understand that when a home floods, the people who live there do not just lose the safety of four walls and a foundation. Because floodwaters affect underground pipes, homes often also lose access to reliable water and sewage services. Residents left behind after a disaster aren’t only replacing drywall and fixing their roofs. They also begin to rely on bottled water and deal with the consequences of sewage backing up into their bathtubs on rainy days.

This takes a toll on residents’ mental and physical health. Black and brown Houstonians have borne the biggest burden of the GLO’s choice. By holding back funds from Houston, the state has denied people the relative peace that comes with a house, including the promise of clean, reliable water.

Each time the state continues to leave people behind, they erode our trust in the rules that are supposed to protect our health and water. When the Texas Legislature meets at the start of next year, they’ll have the chance to start to make this right. They can adopt the Sunset Commission’s recommendations for the TCEQ focused on transparency and better communication with the public. They also should consider how $2.9 billion in federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funds managed by the Texas Water Development Board for water infrastructure improvements can more rapidly reach communities in Houston who need help now. This is just the minimum our legislators can do.

This can be the start, not the end, of improving how our state meets the needs of its most vulnerable residents and centers equity in its processes, too. Our lives and our health depend on it.

Kristen Schlemmer is the Legal Director and Waterkeeper of Bayou City Waterkeeper.