News Feature | September 6, 2017

Following Harvey, Houston's Water Quality At Risk

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga, Associate Editor, Water Online

Houston.Reg

Despite the valiant efforts of emergency workers and water and wastewater personnel, Hurricane Harvey has brought a sea of environmental and water quality issues to Texas.

By flooding source water bodies, — not to mention roads, homes, and businesses, with stormwater — Harvey has brought significant contamination that will have to be contended with before Houston and its surrounding areas can return to normal.

“Flooded sewers are stoking fears of cholera, typhoid and other infectious diseases,” reported The New York Times. “Runoff from the city’s sprawling petroleum and chemicals complex contains any number of hazardous compounds. Lead, arsenic and other toxic and carcinogenic elements may be leaching from some two dozen Superfund sites in the Houston area.”

While the city has done its best to maintain drinking water and sewer infrastructure, Houston’s reliance on private wells is stoking health concerns.

“Dr. David Persse, Houston’s direct of Emergency Medical Services, said officials were monitoring the drinking water system and the sewer system, both of which he said were intact so far,” The New York Times reported. “But hundreds of people across the 38 Texas counties affected by Hurricane Harvey use private wells, according to an estimate by Louisiana State University researchers, and those people must fend for themselves.”

But that’s not to say that Houston’s centralized treatment operations are free of risk. According to Erin Bonney Casey, a research director at Bluefield Research, Houston is served by 1,404 community drinking water systems and 443 publicly-owned wastewater treatment works. The city’s biggest utility serves 2.2 million people.

“In the coming days, municipal officials will struggle to keep water treatment facilities operational,” Casey wrote. “The City of Houston’s 40 wastewater treatment plants are at the greatest risk of being overwhelmed, flushing untreated wastewater into surface waters and putting the public at risk of disease and infection. In the days and weeks ahead, prolonged power outages will further stress water utilities’ ability to operate, as most prepare only short-term emergency power supplies.”

As the area recovers from this natural catastrophe, drinking water and wastewater concerns will surely be a priority.

For similar stories visit Water Online’s Source Water Contamination Solutions Center.

Image credit: "Houston,” Neil Heeney © 2012, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/