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Houston lifts boil water notice after pressure failure at plant

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Steve Johnson via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The City of Houston has lifted a boil water notice that had affected more than two million residents since Sunday. Lab results confirmed the tap water met all regulatory standards and is safe to drink.

There was a power outage Sunday at a treatment plant in Houston, and city officials said a backup system failed.

That caused an unacceptable drop in water pressure, and the boil water notice was issued.

The Houston mayor's office said on Monday it believed the water was safe, but it was forced to issue the notice due to "regulatory requirements."

Yvonne Williams Forrest, Houston Water Director, said the department followed the rules and told KHOU-TV that it didn't believe there was a massive risk.

"Our system maintained pressure, we never lost pressure fully, so there was never an opportunity for anything to enter our system. It just fell below the regulatory environments," she told the station.

The Houston Public Works water system serves an estimated 2.2 million people.

How it unfolded

At a Monday morning press conference with Mayor Sylvester Turner and Houston Water Director Yvonne Williams Forrest, officials laid out the timeline of what happened and when on Sunday.

The plant lost power at 10:30 a.m. and a transformer for the plant failed. That transformer's backup also failed. Power to the purification plant was restored at 12:30 p.m. Sunday, two hours after it was lost.

Turner said he asked Houston Public Works to review the system.

Both Turner and Forrest said this boil water notice was different than two previous ones — one triggered by the 2021 winter storm and another caused by a main water line failure.

The two also fielded numerous questions about the length of time it took to notify residents about the low water pressure and the announcement of a boil water order Sunday evening.

“Just because the power went out, doesn’t mean the power went out in the system. We had to verify that the pressure drop was real and reach out to TCEQ,” Turner said.

Customers at Joe V's and HEB loaded up on water as stories issued limits on how much could be purchased. One store leader didn't see any unusual buying habits or worried customers.

Houston ISD closed

On Monday, Houston ISD closed all schools, offices, facilities due to the boil water notice. It planned to keep its doors closed on Tuesday.

“This decision has been made due to the logistical challenges caused by the notice. Those challenges prevent the district from being able to provide meals for its students and ensure safe water is available for students and staff,” the district tweeted on Monday afternoon.

More than 330,000 students across four Houston districts did not attend school on Monday.

Houston ISD staff members were expected to work remotely, according to messages sent to some teachers on Monday afternoon.

Jail situation

This water crisis came as the Harris County Jail faces continued criticism due to overcrowding. The jail’s daily population has been dangerously close to the facility’s maximum capacity since early July. As of Sunday, there were 9,871 people in the jail, according to the Harris County Jail dashboard.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office took precautions to protect inmates from potential infection, according to HCSO Chief of Staff Jason Spencer. In an email, Spencer said the agency has been "providing people in the jail with bottled water for drinking and personal hygiene."

"We've had no significant issues so far," Spencer said.

State reaction

The office of Gov. Greg Abbott said it has asked the Texas Division of Emergency Management and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to "to deploy necessary resources to support the city."

"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," Abbott said in a statement on Monday.

HPM's Matt Thomas contributed to this report.

Mark Norris