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Millions of Houston residents warned to boil tap water

A power outage at a water treatment plant triggered the notice, which will remain in effect until Texas state regulators test samples in a lab.

HOUSTON (CN) — Houston’s mayor said early Monday he expects a boil-water notice affecting all the city’s 2.3 million residents to end Tuesday.

The advisory, issued late Sunday by the city, came as a surprise because it was sunny and 75 degrees across Greater Houston earlier in the day with no widespread weather events, it seemed, that would necessitate such a warning, like Hurricane Harvey in August 2017 and Winter Storm Uri in February 2021, both of which caused power outages throughout the region.

It also raised the question why city officials had waited so long to notify the public, given they said a power outage at a water purification plant about 10 miles east of downtown at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday had caused Houston’s water pressure to drop below the state-required minimum of 20 pounds per square inch, or PSI.

When water pressure falls so low, groundwater carrying harmful bacteria can enter cracks and holes in pipes – bacteria that can only be removed from water by boiling it, experts say.

Houston’s public works department is advising residents to boil water for drinking, food prep, bathing and brushing their teeth and not to use water and ice dispensed from their refrigerators, though water pressure was restored to all customers shortly after the outage.

But Yvonne Williams Forrest, director of Houston water, whose more than 1,400 staff members manage pipelines and treatment plants in a 600-square-mile area, said residents who drank tap water before they learned of the notice should not be worried about their health.

“The system pressure was never zero. It always remained pressurized, it just fell below the regulatory limit and that’s why I’m not concerned,” Forrest told KTRK, Houston’s ABC affiliate.

Forrest said the city does not issue boil-water notices as soon as the power goes out at a treatment plant, as it must first verify pressure has dropped in the system below 20 PSI and notify the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

“There are a number of steps in the regulatory process before you issue a boil-water notice and we didn’t want to unnecessarily alert the city if we didn’t have to,” she added.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner backed Forrest’s assurances: “We believe the water is safe,” he wrote late Sunday on Twitter.

The city is now focused on regulatory hurdles needed to remove the advisory.

Turner said early Monday the city had met the first requirement, obtaining TCEQ’s approval for its water-sample testing plan.

“Workers will begin collecting samples this morning and do two complete sets to send to the lab for processing,” he tweeted.

The samples must be observed at a state lab for at least 18 hours before the TCEQ gives the city permission to lift the notice, so it is expected to stay in effect until Tuesday.

The water issues were undoubtedly a welcome trade-off for some of Houston Independent School District’s 194,000 students. The district canceled classes Monday, giving them another day off following a weeklong Thanksgiving break.

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