Local NewsHouston Mayor Turner Orders ‘Diagnostic Review’ After Water Treatment, Emergency Notification Failures

Transformer failure caused water pressure to drop below safe levels Sunday morning, but the city did not issue a boil notice until that evening.
November 28, 2022
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After a water system failure that prompted a city-wide boil notice, halted surgeries, and closed multiple schools and businesses, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced he is ordering a “diagnostic review” of the incident, including the delayed notice to the public.

During a press conference Monday, Turner explained that primary backup transformers at a water treatment and pumping facility failed Sunday morning, causing water pressure to drop below safe levels.

“At 10:30 a.m. Sunday morning, East Water Purification plants one and two lost power [and] at 10:50 a.m. plant three lost power,” said Turner.

Although pressure dropped below the regulatory level of 35 pounds per square inch (PSI) and then below the emergency level of 20 PSI by 11:00 a.m., Turner said normal pressure was restored at most stations within two minutes and others within 30 minutes.

Significant loss of water pressure can allow untreated groundwater to backflow into the water supply through leaks in the delivery infrastructure, potentially introducing dangerous contaminants.

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The city did not issue a boil water notice until Sunday evening.

“Based on the data, based on the sensors, a decision was made that a boil water notice (BWN) was to be issued,” said Turner, noting that pressure had been restored quickly.

“There were questions as to whether a boil water notice needed to be issued; a decision was made out of an abundance of caution,” added Turner, who said the BWN had been issued at 6:41 p.m. Sunday after discussion with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).

TCEQ spokesman Ryan Vise says the commission first learned of the issue at about 3:25 p.m. Sunday.

Residents subscribed to city emails received notice at 7:20 p.m. and text messages went out at 10:30 p.m., but the city did not activate the Emergency Alert System (EAS). Turner told reporters he thought he had ordered EAS notifications, and during the press conference asked Director of Houston Public Works Carol Haddock, “Did it not go out?”

“That is definitely something that we will check with the team internally and find out what the processes were,” said Haddock. “It didn’t trigger over to that this time.”

Turner defended the delay in notification, saying that state law only requires the city to notify the public within 24 hours.

During Winter Storm Uri in 2021, power outages also halted Houston’s water treatment plants, and its emergency backup power generators failed.

At a February 23, 2021 meeting, then-city council member Greg Travis noted that Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (D-TX-07) had offered to help obtain federal funding for generators to prevent future outages. Turner responded that there were generators in place at most plants, but they did not all work at that time.

In response to a reporter’s question, Haddock explained that emergency generators would not have helped this time, as the issues were with transformers inside the facility, not an interrupted power supply.

TCEQ received a water quality testing plan from the city at 10:18 p.m. Sunday and approved it at 10:40 p.m. Although samples were extracted Monday morning, results will not be available until Tuesday at 3:00 a.m.

Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement Sunday evening that he had directed the Texas Division of Emergency Management and TCEQ to provide immediate resources to assist the City of Houston.

“The State of Texas is immediately responding and deploying support to Houston as they work to get a safe supply of water back online,” said Abbott.

“We have been in contact with Mayor Turner to offer the full support of the state, and we’re currently working to fulfill the city’s request for help with rapid turnaround of water sample results,” he added. “I thank TDEM and TCEQ for swiftly responding to help address this issue.”

“We urge those that the boil water notice affects to continue heeding the guidance of local officials and take adequate precautions when boiling and using water. Together, we will ensure our fellow Texans are supported while the city’s water supply returns.”

Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest, ordered all schools closed Monday alongside Aldine, Pasadena, and Spring Branch, while multiple other area districts closed campuses that obtained water from the city.

Update: On Monday afternoon, Houston ISD announced they would remain closed again on Tuesday.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) called for Houston Water Director Yvonne Williams Forrest to be removed from her position.

“We are now going into a second day of school closures and this issue has been mishandled from the beginning,” Bettencourt told The Texan. In an interview with KHOU 11 news, Forrest dismissed concerns over the delayed notices, saying, “The reason we’re getting the boil water notice is the regulatory requirement.”

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Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a regional reporter for The Texan living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.

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