Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Rural Texas towns struggle with finances after Harvey damages water infrastructure

A month after Hurricane Harvey dumped record amounts of water on Texas, rural areas are still struggling with infrastructure issues and the cost of repairing them. "Across the state’s coastal areas, raging water from flooded rivers snaked through rural areas and hit water systems hard, gumming up sewer mains with sand and mud, pushing raw sewage into waterways and rendering drinking water wells unusable," Christopher Collins reports for The Texas Observer. "As of Monday, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) data showed that 40 counties had issued 367 notices to residents that they’d need to boil water before safely drinking it. But even after water service is fully restored, cities could be holding the bag for millions of dollars in repairs."

In Patton Village, a town of almost 2,000 just north of Houston, the hurricane destroyed a brand new $10 million wastewater treatment plant. The treatment system is running on generators now; repairing the plant could take months and cost $150,000. The town also owes $200,000 to contractors who manually pumped wastewater for days following the storm. With nearly a third of its residents living below the poverty level, the town's finances are in dire straits.

A home in Patton Village, Texas. (Photo provided by Jill Carlson)
The Rural Community Assistance Partnership estimates that around 30 other small town and rural water systems with more than 100,000 people have also been significantly damaged by Harvey. RCAP is a nonprofit that helps small town and rural areas apply for grant funding to fix water systems after disasters. The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers a grant that gives emergency funds to communities whose water systems have been damaged in disasters. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency helps cities pay to repair damage to publicly owned facilities.

Returning the water systems to normal will take years, said Tommy Ricks, RCAP's director of environmental services. Part of that is because even small water systems must conform to federal drinking water standards. "This recovery process is not a bunch of farmers and ranchers connecting water hoses to get the water to flow again," Ricks said. "The same standards that apply to Houston apply to Patton Village."

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