Two weeks after a construction accident caused a water shortage that crippled Fort Hood and impacted surrounding communities, questions remain regarding how the incident was handled.
The July 12 accident, in which a 48-inch water main feeding a treatment plant on Belton Lake was severed, left the plant operating at a quarter of its capacity and impacted Copperas Cove, Harker Heights, Killeen and Fort Hood.
Though the accident occurred about 2 p.m. on a Saturday, media outlets weren’t notified until the following morning. And although officials with Bell County Water Control and Improvement District No. 1, which operates the plant, promised a full report by last week, details surrounding the incident have been slow to emerge.
One reason may be the lack of documentation pertaining to the accident. WCID-1 General Manager Jerry Atkinson told the Herald most of the accident response was conducted by phone.
More concerning is the revelation that the damaged pipeline is not in the database for Texas 811, a system to help contractors locate utility lines before they dig. The worker who cut the water line reportedly called 811 before digging but no information on the line was available.
The missing information was not simply an oversight. Water transmission and distribution lines — as well as sewer lines — are not required to be registered with Texas 811, as are gas, electric and communications lines. Atkinson said last week the district does not intend to register the water lines, citing technological requirements the district currently lacks.
Atkinson noted the transmission and distribution lines are clearly marked on deeds and surveys available through the county clerk’s office.
Still, the accident happened — and the consequences were anything but minor.
A total of 29 million gallons of water were lost, but to date neither the worker who caused the break nor the contractor he worked for have been officially identified. Atkinson suggested fines are unlikely, but the district plans to recoup the lost money, which includes $70,000 in repairs.
The effects of the break were felt across two counties. In Copperas Cove, officials placed the city in Stage 5 conservation mode, forcing local restaurants to close. The city’s Mountain Top tank was depleted, leaving some residents without water.
In Killeen, the city closed its swimming pools for two days and initiated Stage 4 water restrictions.
But perhaps the biggest impact was felt at Fort Hood, where water shortages caused officials to operate the post with only mission-essential personnel the Monday after the line break. The installation closed child care facilities and canceled outpatient services at Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center. In addition, AAFES closed all food-service facilities.
Water supplies were largely back to normal within three days, but the incident illustrates how a seemingly minor construction accident can have serious and far-reaching consequences.
Moving forward, it is crucial that the water district review its procedures. Improving methods of notifying the public and better coordination with developers and contractors in advance of construction projects should be top considerations.
State lawmakers should push for mandatory inclusion of water lines in the 811 database, so that contractors have real-time access to information on the location of all buried utility lines. Legislation also should include funding to make the necessary mapping technology accessible to utility districts statewide.
Looking long term, Fort Hood should consider an initiative to achieve self-sufficiency with its water supply. Though such a project would require federal approval, it is a crucial need. Indeed, amid legitimate concerns about terrorism and acts of aggression by foreign nations, it is ironic the post could be shut down by a construction worker with an errant backhoe.
In this case, the damage was repaired quickly; the impact could have been worse. But the water district and state officials must take the necessary steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
This unfortunate incident must not be viewed as simply water under the bridge.