• Fri. Nov 25th, 2022

As the east Texas city boils its waters on Thanksgiving, officials seek a solution to its aging infrastructure

ByRobin H. Purcell

Nov 24, 2022

ZAVALLA, Texas — The nearly 700 residents here are having to boil their water this Thanksgiving as the small East Texas town struggles with aging infrastructure that left residents without clean water for 10 days this month.

The working-class town, 23 miles southeast of Lufkin, has had problems with its water system for years, but the problems worsened this month when water pressure dropped so much that the city issued a boil-off notice on Nov. 14. Low pressure at the time turned into a complete shutdown for several days, leading to the closure of schools and businesses. In an attempt to fix the problem, the city identified several infrastructure issues, including a malfunctioning vacuum pump and leaks in several water lines.

“It’s almost like a tsunami hit us,” said Councilor Kim Retherford. “It didn’t give us time to breathe.”

The situation in Zavalla is a reflection of water supply issues across the state, as the water infrastructure has aged and become increasingly vulnerable as the state’s population continues to grow. Rural towns in East Texas are particularly vulnerable to water quality and supply problems — East Texas has had more reports of boiling water than any other area in the past decade, according to data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Rural communities’ water systems are often operated by volunteers or city guides who lack the technical knowledge to meet expanding state and federal regulations. With limited resources, these communities are also delaying or forgoing much-needed repairs.

“Everything you’re seeing is a 20- or 30-year problem in the making that has come to a head,” Angelina & Neches River Authority general manager Kelley Holcomb said during an emergency city council meeting this week. “You can’t get out of there that cheaply.”

In Zavalla, most of the city’s water has been restored, but the reference to boiling water remains in effect. A lab in Nacogdoches will test water samples and determine if the notification can be lifted.

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Angelina County Judge Keith Wright stepped in earlier this week, urging the state to support Zavalla. The Texas Division of Emergency Management complied with the request, sending bottled water and deploying the Texas A&M Public Works Response Team.

Bert Nitzke, part of the team at A&M, which was formed earlier this year, said his team has repaired three leaks and is continuing to test all of the city’s water lines for loss of pressure, which would indicate a leak.

Little progress was made in developing a long-term solution to the city’s water problems at this week’s emergency meeting. The city’s director of public works resigned this week, and few people in Texas have the special license needed to work at the city’s largest well because of its close proximity to surface water.

At the meeting, the city council voted to delay awarding a contract to a licensed well worker, and angry local residents expressed their frustration.

“I work long hours and all I want when I get home is a hot shower,” said one resident. “I’m here as a community member and I’m saying that we don’t have to have this problem in the future. We need a team working on it.”

Community members suggested the city seek private grants to overhaul the entire water system.

Holcomb suggested that the city start sourcing its water from Lufkin, a solution he said would take five years to implement.

“You won’t be able to solve your problems on your own,” Holcomb said. “The stuff is old, it needs to be replaced – it needed to be replaced 20 years ago.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune, a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom that educates and engages Texans in state politics and politics. Learn more at texastribune.org.