Opinion: Clean water for Houston takes work

Ayanna Jolivet Mccloud
December 14, 2022

This opinion piece co-authored by Executive Director Ayanna Jolivet Mccloud appeared in the Houston Chronicle on November 29, 2022 and is available online here.

Life under a boil notice should make some basic priorities crystal clear. This week, after power failed at one of Houston’s three main water purification plants, more than 2 million Houstonians were under their third boil water notice in two years. Such notices, even if only for a handful of days, are a crippling burden for a city — felt most acutely by the most vulnerable. Reliable drinking water for a metroplex of millions, built on bayous, is not a given, it’s a collective achievement that requires constant attention. It takes a well-paid and trained workforce and a massive network of up-to-date infrastructure. It also requires strong, vigilant protection of our waterways. When any of these variables are compromised, we are swiftly reminded why we should not take our water system for granted.

Now that the boil notice has been lifted, we must take action to shore up our systems that bring us safe, reliable water, including supporting the tools that are already working.

Decades of hard-fought policy battles have served to clean up and safeguard the region’s once-severely polluted waterways. This winter, however, many of those protections are under threat as the Supreme Court is now considering a case — Sackett v. EPA — that could cut back longstanding protections for roughly half the nation’s streams and wetlands.

That a sprawling metropolis, home to the nation’s largest petrochemical complex replete with refineries and industry, has managed to keep its waters somewhat alive and usable is thanks in no small part to the Clean Water Act. Passed with sweeping bipartisan support exactly 50 years ago, few laws have been as transformative to our quality of life. The law made it illegal to fill in wetlands and discharge pollutants into “navigable waters of the United States” without a permit. Its implementation has been inconsistent across presidencies and states — with opponents, most recently the Trump administration, attempting to restrict and redefine the exact parameters of the nation’s “waters.” Despite these challenges, a new report by the National Wildlife Federation shows that considerable improvements to water quality have been made since the Act’s inception.

The law has proved critical in safeguarding Houston’s water resources. When the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the agency tasked with implementing the Clean Water Act in Texas, has failed to provide these protections, organizations such as Bayou City Waterkeeper and others have stepped in and used the minimum requirements provided under the law to protect our waterways and communities.

Before this tool was available, many of our nation’s waters were treated like landfills, drains for the toxic waste and untreated sewage generated by the post-World War II economic boom. That boom also took its toll on our wetlands. In just two decades after the war, 7.6 million acres of wetlands, an area roughly seven times the size of Harris County, were destroyed in the lower 48 states. A series of high-profile river fires — yes, rivers on fire — helped push Congress to act.

Despite the progress of the past few decades, there have been numerous industry-backed attempts to remove clean water protections. In the latest attack, the plaintiffs in Sackett v. EPA seek to limit which waters deserve federal protection under the Clean Water Act. If the Sacketts, two Idaho landowners, and their backers, are successful, many Houston-area streams and wetlands that provide flood control, recharge waters during drought, filter pollution and provide habitat will be put at risk of rapid degradation.

For Houston, that means not only more potential water supply contamination threats to our communities, but also further losses to our few remaining wetlands. We have already paved over as much as 30 percent of prairie wetlands in Harris County alone. These wetlands, such as those surrounding the east and west forks of the San Jacinto River, work to slow down floodwaters and filter out pollutants that would otherwise flow into Lake Conroe and Lake Houston — the primary source of our drinking water.

Our watershed is home to some of the most unique and diverse wetlands in the world. These waters, and others, provide real services to our communities that often go unnoticed: reduced costs at water treatment plants for filtering and purifying our drinking water, as well as soaking in and storing flood waters during heavy rain events. With climate change heightening the pressure on our infrastructure, the functions performed by healthy natural water systems are even more critical.

Clawing back federal regulations will likely hit frontline communities hardest. When we pave over wetlands, floodwaters that would normally be stored in soils flow quickly to communities downstream, if onsite mitigation is inadequate. This strains our infrastructure and exacerbates flooding that disproportionately impacts Black and lower-income neighborhoods. To make matters worse, this water is often polluted, not only from industrial waste but also from sewer overflows during rain events — spewing untreated sewage into our neighborhoods, homes and waterways. At least one in ten sewage overflow events can be attributed to wet weather.

Clearly, the Supreme Court needs to honor the intent of Congress and protect the drinking water supplies and natural flood protection of hundreds of millions of Americans. Clean water for Houston takes work and the Clean Water Act is an essential tool for the task.

Texans also must continue to call on the TCEQ to take better care of our water resources. Further, the Texas Legislature must invest in the infrastructure and workforce needed to bring safe, reliable drinking water to our homes and businesses.

This week’s boil notice is a visceral reminder of the fragility of the systems and processes that serve our most basic needs — and a sober reminder of what’s most needed to protect clean water for our community.

Ayanna Jolivet Mccloud is Executive Director of Bayou City Waterkeeper. Danielle Goshen is Policy Specialist/Counsel, Texas Coast and Water Program at the National Wildlife Federation