13 Investigates: Aging infrastructure leads to frequent, minor water outages at Newport MUD

Thursday, February 23, 2023
Aging infrastructure leads to frequent water outages at Newport MUD
13 Investigates found aging infrastructure in the Newport Municipal Utility District leads to sporadic boil water notices across the area.

CROSBY, Texas (KTRK) -- William Vandagriff has lived in Crosby for 44 years. The entire time, he said he had received his water from the Newport Municipal Utility District.

The district has 4,500 connections, but 13 Investigates found aging infrastructure is leading to sporadic water interruptions across the area.

ABC13's investigation found Newport MUD had at least 31 boil water notices last year, according to data provided by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

"We went on bottled water for about three years," Vandagriff said. "I have not heard of one boil water notice in Newport. Ever."

That's because the boil water notices issued there are not districtwide, according to DeLonne Johnson, one of five elected board members of the Newport MUD.

"Newport was built in the '70s, and a lot of that infrastructure's life is 30 to 50 years old. So, it's time to replace it," Johnson said. "If we notice or we get a report that there is a failure, a leak, for example, our operators go and investigate. When they find the leak, what they have to do is: Turn the water off to the houses that are directly affected by the leak so that they can repair it. So, that could be one house, it could be 10 houses, but it's never too many more than that."

TCEQ, a state agency that regulates water quality, requires public water systems to issue a boil water notice to customers when "the water in the distribution system may be unsafe for consumption or may pose an acute health risk."

The notice is "intended to reduce the possibility of waterborne illnesses resulting from consuming water which may contain harmful microbes," according to TCEQ.

Johnson said boil water notices in Newport are due to spot repairs to the infrastructure that only end up impacting between five and 15 homes.

"A lot of this is going to fall on me if I continue to live here," Johnson said. "How can I get the revenue to repair the infrastructure that needs to be repaired so that we don't have so many spot repairs, because the issue to me is not the boil water notices. The issue is that every spot repair we have to do is twice as expensive as if we fixed it before it started leaking too bad."

Statewide, there were 2,730 boil water notices issued through November last year, according to TCEQ data provided to 13 Investigates. The data doesn't show how many customers were impacted by the notices or what led to them, but nearly 10% of those boil water notices issued last year across the state were in Harris County.

The largest was last year when a boil water notice impacted more than 2 million Houston residents.

SEE ALSO: Mayor, public works chief's texts show Houston's scramble to notify the public of boil water notice

13 Investigates asked Newport MUD for a tour of its facilities to learn more about how residents in rural areas get their water as part of a weeklong series on water in the region. The district's attorney declined, citing safety concerns.

Johnson agreed to speak with Eyewitness News about the process.

"Long, long ago there was a canal that was made that connected Lake Houston to one of the refineries. The refineries use this canal to cool their towers. Well, this water can also be used for drinking if you filter it properly, and so we get our water from that canal. We draw from that canal," Johnson said.

As new homes continue to be built in the area Newport MUD serves, Johnson said it is, to a degree, impacting reliability.

But he said it's something they're working to address through bonds voted on by taxpayers.

"The system wasn't built for the maximum amount of connections that Newport was built to have, so there was always going to be a need down the road for more capacity," Johnson said.

He said the district does a water accountability examination every month. In one example Johnson shared, he said if the district produces 20 million gallons of water but only bills customers 19 million or 18 million, they have to account for the difference to make sure there wasn't a leak.

This difference in water billed to customers versus water produced could come from a nearby fire department that used the resource, or it could have been stolen by, for example, a landscaping company, he said.

But, if they determine that difference in water was due to a leak, then the district starts working on repairs.

"If we have to do a repair, we have to turn the water off. If we turn your water off, we're going to put a boiled water notice on your door," he said. "Turning water off is just a momentary thing. We have valves in the ground for different streets, and because of the age of the system, we're going to have to turn your water off and change that out. When we return your service, we're going to inform you that it'd be wise to boil your water."

Johnson said the district is constantly working on analyzing its water and sewer infrastructure to decide what it can do to improve it and how much it will cost taxpayers.

An expansion to the district's surface water treatment plant is expected to be completed by 2025 to comply with regulations of the Harris Galveston Subsidence District.

"Crosby is supposed to sink several feet because of the water withdrawal from the Earth, so that's why we have to use surface water from Lake Houston and less water from our wells within the community," Johnson said. "We try to use surface water as much as possible."

Still, Victoria Wilhite, a Crosby resident who is in the Newport district, said she expects more.

"It might be up to standards, but they can make it a little bit better," she said.

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