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A Texas city has been without running water for days amid heat wave

Ector County resident Jose Hernandez fills up jugs of water from a fire hydrant that was opened to reduce pressure on the system as City of Odessa Water Distribution crews work to resolve a water crisis in Odessa, Tex. About 165,000 residents have been left with little to no running water for days. (Eli Hartman/Odessa American/AP)
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Crews in Odessa, Tex., were scrambling to restore water Wednesday while 165,000 residents in and around the city had been without drinking water amid sweltering heat after a pipe broke this week.

The city’s water taps lost pressure and went dry after the 24-inch water main ruptured Monday afternoon, city officials said. The Ector County Office of Emergency Management declared a state of disaster in the city, saying there was an “imminent threat” of “severe damage, injury, or loss of life or property.”

“Citizens should expect a significant loss in water pressure and/or no water at all,” the city wrote in a Facebook post Tuesday. “A significant portion of the community remains without water at this time.”

The city announced Wednesday that Odessa’s water treatment plant was up and running again by about 8 a.m., and that officials expected that it could take 12 to 14 hours for the “recharging” process to finish. During that time, more water will be added to the system to make sure there isn’t an additional leak in the aging pipe, and that the water does not become contaminated.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), whose administration faced scrutiny after the deadly winter freeze of 2021, said in a news release that the state was “taking swift action to respond to Odessa’s impacted water supply and support the local community in meeting their water needs.” Tom Kerr, the city’s utilities director, said at a news conference that the pipe that broke is about 60 years old.

“Aging water systems are common throughout the country,” Kerr said Tuesday. “It’s often difficult for municipalities to be able to afford to manage those systems as they age. That’s the situation we find ourselves in.”

Odessa was under a mandatory boil water notice Wednesday, and residents were advised to pick up cases of bottled water in town. Water delivery was also expected to be made to the area’s nursing homes. No injuries or deaths had been reported as of Wednesday afternoon.

Some residents were frustrated by how Odessa was left without water when temperatures were expected to approach 100 degrees.

“Only time I’ve ever been thankful that we at least buy water to drink. Seriously, Odessa — is there ANYTHING that our city can get right?” resident Caroline McCrary wrote on Facebook. “This is insane.”

A city spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The water crisis comes the same week that a massive summer heat wave has spread across the United States, with more than 100 million Americans from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes under heat alerts. In Texas, sweltering days and sultry nights recently set dozens of records. Dallas had a morning low of 80 degrees Sunday, a record high. Overnight temperatures often play an even greater role than daytime highs in amplifying heat stress on the body and contributing to heat-related illnesses and fatalities in vulnerable populations. Dallas then hit a record high of 103 degrees Sunday afternoon.

Record-setting heat wave expands east; over 100 million under alerts

Cities such as Austin, San Antonio and Abilene tied or broke daily heat records over the past week, while the heat and oppressive humidity in Houston and Galveston has contributed to heat indexes in the 105- to 110-degree range.

Located about 320 miles west of Fort Worth, Odessa is perhaps best known for oil and as the home of “Friday Night Lights,” the 1990 Buzz Bissinger book on the city’s love of high school football that was adapted into a movie and a television series.

Water treatment has been an issue Odessa lawmakers have sought to address in recent years. In November, the Odessa City Council approved a $95 million plan to rehabilitate the water treatment plant, according to the Odessa American.

When the break occurred at 6 p.m. Monday, Odessa Mayor Javier Joven told reporters this week, it was difficult to isolate the location of the leak, which led the city to shut down the whole water system at the intersection of 42nd and San Jacinto streets.

“Because of the critical nature of the loss in pressure, we were compelled to take the plant offline to begin the repairs that are ongoing,” Joven said at a Tuesday news conference.

Joven added that the city needed to add 15 million to 20 million gallons of water back into Odessa’s system to get it up to speed, the American reported.

Phillip Urrutia, the deputy city manager for Odessa, explained to the Associated Press that the broken pipe that’s kept about 165,000 residents without water is due to “an aging infrastructure.”

“It’s a cast iron pipe, and so those are typically more susceptible to breaks than other new technologies like PVC pipe that’s going in the ground,” he said.

Some plumbers estimate that cast iron pipes can last between 75 to 100 years, compared to PVC drain lines that have an indefinite shelf life.

City officials continued to stress to residents to keep boiling whatever water they had available. Some in Odessa, such as resident Amber Elms, found a degree of humor amid the heat.

“Hard to boil water when you have none,” she wrote.

Matthew Cappucci and Jason Samenow contributed to this report.