That’s how long parts of Killeen went without drinkable water because of low levels of chlorine residuals in the city’s water system, beginning Oct. 19.
That’s 10 days during which residents had to boil their water in order to drink it, thousands of Killeen students had to bring bottled water from home, and dozens of restaurants and e shops had to reduce service or close their doors.
Yet, even as the city lifted the boil-water notice for portions of the city Thursday, Killeen officials were unwilling to take any responsibility for the problem.
As Mayor Jose Segarra said during a City Hall news conference, the incident was “a fluke.”
Bell County Water Control and Improvement District No. 1, which supplies treated water to Killeen and other surrounding cities, maintains that its levels of the disinfectant chloramine were 400% of the minimum safe level mandated by the state.
And no other cities that received water from WCID-1 — including Harker Heights, Nolanville and Copperas Cove — had a drop in chlorine levels that necessitated the boil-water notice in Killeen.
Yet on Oct. 19, six of nine quarterly Killeen testing sites showed that chlorine residuals were below the state mandate of 0.5 milligrams per liter — requiring Killeen to issue a citywide boil-water notice.
Could the problem be in Killeen’s water infrastructure, including some areas of the city where pipes are more than 75 years old?
City officials categorically denied that possibility.
Yet the city typically issues at least a half-dozen localized boil-water notices each month, many because of pipeline breaks. And the city recently launched a Water Master Plan with the purpose of replacing aging pipes in the older section of town.
Moreover, if the area’s water provider is putting out drinkable water that is well above minimum state safety standards, yet that water falls below standards after it is introduced into the city’s pipe system, how can the water supplier be at fault?
Still, that hasn’t stopped one city council member from pointing fingers at WCID-1, saying the city pays the water district millions of dollars and should expect better water quality.
There are two things wrong with that assessment.
First, while it’s true that the city pays the water district a hefty sum for its treatment services (about $4 million annually), Killeen sells that water to the city’s customers at a profit. In fiscal year 2020-2021, the city recorded more than $20.1 million in water sales, and the current budget calls for about $21 million in sales.
Second, the city’s contract with the water district states that the WCID-1 has no responsibility for the quality of the water once it reaches the city’s pipelines.
In essence, pointing fingers at WCID in this instance is like pouring clean water into a dirty glass and then complaining about the look and taste of your drink. Yet Killeen’s residents are supposed to believe that the city’s infrastructure played no part in this whole episode?
And what about the city’s storage tanks?
Back in February, as the area was gripped by freezing weather that led to broken pipes and low water levels, Harker Heights officials systematically drained and cleaned the city’s water tanks, putting residents under a boil-water notice in the interim.
Killeen, which was hit with the same problems of low water pressure and low water levels, opted not to clean the city’s tanks, claiming it wasn’t mandated by the state, nor was it practical.
The biofilm that is blamed for the nitrification process that sharply reduced the water’s disinfectant levels over the past two weeks didn’t develop overnight.
The Herald asked the city multiple times over several days for water testing data in the weeks leading up to the boil-water notice.
Friday afternoon, the city finally complied, but seven days of data were missing from the submission. Importantly, data for three of the four days prior to the city’s chlorine-level violation was not provided, partly because of the city only conducts testing four days a week. But the report for Oct. 19, the day of the boil-water notice, was also missing.
Though most daily tests recorded chlorine residual numbers well within the safe range, some sites showed levels at the bottom of the acceptable range, dating as far back as Oct. 5. And without test data from the days just prior to the mandated boil-water notice, who knows what other red flags may have been missed?
To hear Killeen’s city council members tell it, no one is to blame. And one council member claims that some members of the public — and the Herald — just want to stir things up.
That “circle the wagons” approach doesn’t get to the root of the problem.
Certainly, there is no need to assign blame at this point. However, it is important to recognize that steps must be taken to ensure that Killeen doesn’t experience this problem again.
That can only happen if the city is willing to examine all aspects of its water system — from personnel to procedures, as well as infrastructure issues — and to address any shortcomings that are found.
At Thursday’s news conference, city officials announced the city would be producing an “after-action plan” to determine how the problem occurred and to prevent similar problems in the future.
Also, city personnel will receive intensive state water management training, and the city will install chlorine booster stations to ensure adequate chlorine levels throughout the system.
All well and good. But the city must go further than that.
When a city of more than 150,000 residents has undrinkable water for more than a week, a full TCEQ investigation of the city’s procedures and water infrastructure is warranted.
Once the investigation is completed, the results must be shared with the city’s residents in a timely manner.
In addition, city officials should confer with those of other like-sized cities to gather input on how to mitigate future water-related problems.
More importantly, the city must commit to significant investment in the city’s water infrastructure, going beyond its current master plan.
For years, Killeen officials have used the city’s Water and Sewer fund as a piggy bank, moving money out of it to pay for everything from building projects to salaries.
In the current budget, $6 million was transferred from Water and Sewer to the city’s general fund, and another $2.8 million was transferred for Capital Improvement Projects.
Going forward, the majority of Killeen’s Water and Sewer Fund surpluses should be reinvested in the city’s water system.
In addition, out of the $29.1 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act the city received this year, none of that money was dedicated to water infrastructure projects, though that is an allowable use for the funding.
About $4 million of the money was dedicated to upgrading city parks.
The city council should consider discussing a budget amendment to redirect some of that park money toward the city’s aging water infrastructure.
Ultimately, the recent water problem could have been worse, but that’s not the point.
The city’s handling of the water issue seemed to be more reactive than proactive, which is certainly problematic.
But city officials’ lack of accountability, especially early on, is more troubling.
Writing off a 10-day-long water crisis as “a fluke” even before the facts are fully known does little to inspire public confidence in either their public officials or the quality of their drinking water.
Certainly, Killeen’s residents are entitled to both.