Dallas’ water supply is stable but other North Texas cities urge residents to conserve or boil
Updated at 7:30 p.m. throughout
After a historic storm left millions of Texans without power, the state is dealing with another crisis: water shortages.
While Dallas’ water is safe to drink and the supply is stable for now, many other North Texas cities are facing shortages as pipes freeze and burst.
Cities including Denton and Arlington have issued notices to boil water before drinking it. Fort Worth, too, has issued and extended a boil notice to include a total of 212,000 residents in the city’s northwest neighborhoods. Total water outages have been reported in the affluent suburb of Southlake, 26 miles northwest of downtown Dallas.
And the North Texas Water Municipal District, which supplies dozens of cities, including Plano, Richardson and Mesquite, was encouraging residents and businesses to conserve water because of a spike in demand. Those cities should preserve supplies for firefighting, medical facilities and sanitation, the district said. And residents should limit showers and their use of washing machines and dishwashers.
“We’re trying to keep up with the pace and it is difficult during this winter storm,” said Denise Hickey, a water district spokeswoman. “If you can skip your shower today, do so.”
Rosa Mendoza washes her hands as David Sanroman, 7, pours water from a bottle after the power came back on at their apartment in Dallas on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021. The pipes at Mendoza’s apartment had burst from the cold, and hasn’t consistently had power since the winter storm. (Juan Figueroa)
In Lewisville, residents were urged to “aggressively” conserve water on Wednesday because of “unprecedented water demand” and an outage at a Dallas water plant. Irving officials asked residents to limit water to essential use until Sunday.
The water supply in Keller, which also buys its drinking water from Fort Worth, reached “critically low levels” by 2 p.m. Tuesday and was under a boil water notice. Keller residents who do have water running should leave their faucets closed as often as possible to help the system refill.
In University Park, a boil notice was issued for all water customers after the city experienced multiple water main breaks in rapid succession, according to a news release.
Officials for both Dallas and the separate North Texas district said major infrastructure breaks were probably causing the increase in demand. Dallas has received reports of more than 137 main breaks since the storm’s arrival this week. The city has also responded to more than 1,000 calls from customers with broken pipes.
Dallas Water Utilities Director Terry Lowery said city residents should be mindful of their water consumption and pipes. Some people’s taps may be dry because of ongoing repairs to the city’s system, not frozen pipes inside the home.
Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson took to social media to warn residents about frozen pipes, calling them the “next phase of this crisis.” A spokesman confirmed that the mayor thinks the city’s water system is sound but is concerned about pipes in individual homes and businesses.
The state’s water system is a patchwork of districts. Supply, quality and other factors depend on location.
As of Wednesday morning, more than 550 public water systems in Texas had reported disruptions because of the weather. There were 21 or so reports from water districts in Tarrant, Collin, Ellis and Denton counties, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality confirmed. Neither Dallas County nor Rockwall County had reported any disruptions as of Wednesday morning.
Water districts have 24 hours to notify the state of any outage or boil water notice.
On Wednesday, Houston — the state’s largest city — issued a boil notice.
Houston is in Harris County, and County Judge Lina Hidalgo encouraged all county residents there to boil water unless their local water district said otherwise.
NEW: You should assume you are under a boil water notice unless you’ve heard different from your local authorities. Please boil all tap water for 2 minutes after it reaches a full rolling boil.
— Lina Hidalgo (@LinaHidalgoTX) February 17, 2021
Water and energy are part of a circular relationship, said Sarah Rountree Schlessinger, CEO of the Texas Water Foundation, which promotes water education among elected officials and community leaders.
Water is heavily used to produce energy, including hydroelectric and natural gas. And it takes a lot of energy to store, treat and flow water to homes.
The winter storm and energy crisis are taxing the state’s water infrastructure. Because local water districts do most of the decision-making, it’s too early to suggest any statewide reforms for after snow melts. However, the state must take a more active role in planning for major weather or events, Schlessinger said.
“Whether freezing temperatures, flood or drought, Texas must do more resiliency planning,” she said. “We’re going to have to plan for more of this.”
The ability to treat water and keep it flowing to homes and businesses depends on maintaining pressure in the local water system. More breaks — small and large — can reduce water pressure, Schlessinger said. A decent amount of water storage and healthy pipes are crucial.
While residents can’t do much about major breaks, their small leaks or excess use can add up, she said.
“There are so many places just leaking water right now because there are burst pipes,” she said. “Even the amount of water that can be wasted by a running toilet in a single household can be extraordinary.”
Elected officials and water districts must be direct with residents and keep getting out information on water supply and quality, Schlessinger said.
She encouraged Texans to strike a balance between conserving and storing water themselves. She suggested residents follow guidance from their local water utilities on how much water to use and store.
By Wednesday, North Texans were living all facets of the new water crisis.
In Dallas, Rebecca Reid woke up thankful she had power. But on her way to that first cup of coffee, she stepped into a flooded living room. In a panic, she rushed to shut off the main water pump in the front lawn of her four-bedroom ranch. But it was frozen.
She was able to shut off water to the house only after a neighbor arrived.
Reid’s husband, a firefighter, returned home to cap what Reid called “a pipe to nowhere” located between her dishwasher and an exterior wall.
“It was like a frozen popsicle just waiting to pop,” she said.
Reid said the family tried to do everything right, including focusing small heat lamps on pipes.
“This is so horrible, but I can’t imagine the families without power,” she said.
The faucets went dry at Kimberlee Saenz’s Coppell apartment on Wednesday after her landlord apparently shut off the supply when a line burst. In an email, management warned her and other tenants it might be two weeks before water could be restored.
For the time being, there is plenty of bottled water and other drinks in the apartment for her and her adult son, who she said is “medically fragile.” But she worries about the long haul.
“It’s terrifying,” she said.
In Arlington, Venessa Enow was filling up blue and white ice coolers with her sister and niece. Enow had received a notice that the water was likely going to be shut off at her mother’s house, where she was staying temporarily because of power outages at her own home in Irving.
“I don’t know how I feel. Frustrated?” she said. “I’m fine. My family is fine. I’m fortunate. But when you start thinking about those who don’t have family or light … that’s what’s getting me angry.”
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