Almost two weeks after Winter Storm Uri brought freezing temperatures to Texas from Feb. 15-18, thousands in unincorporated areas of Harris County still remain under boil water notices March 2. At its peak, 3.47 million residents in Harris County were under a boil water notice, according to Harris County Public Health.
Entities began lifting boil water notices later that week, with the city of Houston publishing a news release Feb. 21 stating the notice, which had been in effect since Feb. 17, was lifted. As the notices were lifted, local water authorities and city of Houston officials said the responsibility of informing residents and businesses on when it is safe to use water is on local utility districts and residents themselves.
This resulted in some business owners and residents in unincorporated Harris County unsure if the city of Houston's notice pertained to their property, Michael Schaffer, HCPH's director of environmental public health, said via email.
"When the city of Houston lifted their boil water notice, some constituents did not understand how [the] water system worked. Some constituents assumed—wrongly—it applied to the entire county," Schaffer said. "There were many that were confused because they were unaware that some of the water systems, including municipal utility districts and/or public utility districts in the unincorporated areas, do get their water from the [city of Houston]."
To help residents and businesses in this effort, HCPH launched an interactive map on readyharris.org as well as the HCPH website showing which utility districts were under boil water notices and where notices had been lifted. The utility districts are not managed by Harris County.
"Residents should also contact their local water system provider," Schaffer said. "It is important to make sure this information is known before there is an emergency. If [residents'] phone number or email has changed, update your provider so they can contact you."
As of 11:30 a.m. on March 2, eight areas across Harris County remained under boil water notice affecting about 2,300 residents, according to HCPH. There were more than 5,900 residents under the notice across 21 water systems around 1 p.m. on March 1, but the number dropped to 2,310 affected residents in nine areas by 3 p.m., according to HCPH.
Boil water notices
Schaffer said he believes the confusion partially stemmed from residents not understanding how water is distributed across Harris County. Consumers in the portion of Harris County overlapping Houston as well as some outlying areas receive water from the city's main water system, while residents in cities like Humble receive water through their city's respective system—which often stems from Lake Houston.
Most residents in unincorporated Harris County, however, pay water usage fees and infrastructure costs to utility districts, who pay pumpage fees to regional water authorities to use surface water transmission lines and pump stations. The water authorities rely on Houston's main water source—Lake Houston—as well as groundwater.
When Houston issued its boil water notice Feb. 17 for its main water system, because the water pressure dropped below 20 PSI, or pounds per square inch, Houston Public Works officials said it only pertained to those within the city's main water system. However, regional water authorities also source water from plants within the city's main system.
The North Harris County Regional Water Authority, which distributes water to 160 utility districts, is one of several water authorities that sources water from Houston. Shortly after the city issued a notice, the authority also issued a boil water notice in response to a low amount of pressure the authority's distribution system was receiving.
As the city's boil water notice lifted Feb. 21, Erin Jones, public information officer at Houston Public Works, said regional water authorities and utility districts needed to determine if water met their quality standards before lifting their own boil notices—despite the news release not including that caveat. Jones said the city could not speak for other entities and would not issue or recommend boil water notices for those outside the city's main system.
Additionally, Jones said she believes it could be more confusing for residents if the city referenced separate entities that source water from the city. She said the responsibility falls on consumers and utility districts.
"That's the responsibility of the customer to make sure they're checking their water bills, too," she said. "I would think that hopefully businesses and customers would be able to identify ... where I'm paying my water bills [to]."
Spreading the message
However, NHCRWA President Al Rendl said the winter storm made it difficult for some utility districts to keep consumers informed on boil water notices. The storm also made consumers' ability to find information from utility districts challenging, as notices could have been posted on the door of a district's building or front signage.
Rendl said many utility districts NHCRWA distributes to switched to power generators or groundwater pumps when Houston's pressure dropped and the nearby Northeast Water Purification Plant was unable to provide more than a "fractional amount" of surface water. Those that could not switch to generators or groundwater had to issue boil water notices to their consumers, Rendl said.
However, due to icy roads, lack of internet connection and various other issues, Rendl said some utility districts were not able to update every home or business in their district.
"The utility district does not have the capabilities of notifying each individual person that they're on a boil water notice," he said. "They have websites where they can post that information—and I know many of them did. ... Everyone was quite aware of the problems we were having but were, in many instances, frustrated in their ability to let every person know."
A day after the city of Houston lifted its notice, the NHCRWA released a notice Feb. 22 saying the authority's boil water notice was lifted; however, Rendl said utility districts needed to independently confirm the water was safe for consumption. If districts were unsure, they could reach out to InfraMark, the NHCRWA's operator, to receive information on water quality.
Schaffer said he believes all residents, including those in unincorporated Harris County, need to know how their water relates to the larger water system. He said it is easier for the city of Houston to notify residents than Harris County to notify unincorporated areas, as each area is different.
"It is a challenge for the residents that reside in unincorporated areas [of] Harris County that rely on over 611 water systems to know which they belong to," he said.
Following the city of Houston lifting its boil water notice, some businesses in unincorporated Harris County were unaware if they could safely reopen, officials and business owners said. Harris County Public Health reportedly sent out inspectors to businesses in unincorporated Harris County to inspect their practices amid the boil water notice.
However, other business owners were aware the notice did not pertain to their business. Doug Lyons, general manager at Tumble 22 in Spring's Vintage Park, said he knew when the city of Houston lifted its boil water notice that it did not include his restaurant, which is within Municipal Utility District No. 468.
With this knowledge, he said he was able to operate the business while following proper safety and sanitary requirements. However, Lyons said the notice did make operating amenities like the soft drink mixer, ice machine, and coffee and tea brewers more challenging.
“Unfortunately, when Houston put out that notice that they were no longer under a boil notice, they should have ended that [with], ‘Hey, you know this is only for downtown. There's like 1,000 different municipal water districts that need to also confirm if you're under boil notice,’" he said.
By 1 p.m. Feb. 23, Lyons said Tumble 22 was officially able to stop boiling water when Harris County Public Health's interactive map showed MUD 468's boil notice was lifted—a day after NHCRWA's notice was lifted. While Lyons said the engineer for Vintage Park relayed updates on water quality from MUD 468, he said he does not believe he would have known had he not learned about the utility district when the eatery was preparing to open in December.
"Since I had dealt specifically with that municipal district during our inspection process not but four months ago, I was intimately aware with which water district we were part of, so it made it easier for me to do it," he said. "There was no real, clear-cut communication ahead of time, as far as I saw, [for] who was responsible for what."
Restaurants within the city of Houston also struggled with health protocols for boil water notices, said Naomi Macias, bureau chief of public health at the Houston Health Department.
The Houston Health Department, which oversees about 13,000 food establishments within Houston, visited about 500 "higher-risk" establishments between Feb. 19-21 to check if businesses were boiling water and if they were boiling water correctly as well as if the businesses had any damages that could affect food safety.
In that time, Houston Health Department data shows the department issued 152 citations for violations. Violations included establishments engaging in food preparation with no water, no hot water or under a boil water notice with no alternative water source; and establishments told to clean, sanitize and replace filters and water-autofill equipment, ice machines and ice bins when safe water is restored.
While the most common violations were related to cleaning protocols, nine citations were issued to businesses that were preparing food without proper water, data shows. The health department can close a business that violates health guidelines as well as issue citations ranging from $250-$2,000, Macias said.
"When these things happen, we go in and we're educators first and then enforcers second. We try to teach them the right way," she said. "We're [coming] off of a boil water notice from last [February] as well, so it wasn't, 'Oh my goodness, I don't know what I'm doing anymore. It was kind of fresh for them."