Corpus Christi, Texas has been under a water boil advisory for over a week now and there’s no end in sight. Residents and business owners are growing increasingly angry and frustrated as expenses are piling up. Now, Erin Brockovich is sending an expert to look into why the city’s water still isn’t safe to drink. Meanwhile, the city manager, rather than facing the issue head on, resigned in the middle of the crisis. How will Corpus Christi, now left without a manager and still struggling to get its water safety issues under control, get things back on track? When will the water be safe to drink again?
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Corpus Christi Has Been Under a Boil Water Advisory For Over a Week, Prompting Erin Brockovich to Send Her Partner to Help
Residents of Corpus Christi haven’t been able to drink or use the city water straight from the tap since Friday, May 13. They’re under a strict boil water advisory, requiring them to boil all water for one minute before drinking it and to take extensive precautions even when bathing.
It’s a huge headache and a big expense, not to mention a source of worry and concern for Corpus Christi citizens.
The boil advisory started when water in several parts of the city was tested and came back showing low chlorine levels. Although there was no E. coli found in the water, the disinfectant in the city’s water was below safe levels. The entire city was placed under a boil advisory. The city is now using a new disinfectant called “free chlorine” to stabilize the water. This could cause the water to smell like a swimming pool and be discolored and cloudy.
Environmentalist Erin Brockovich has said that her partner is planning to travel to Corpus Christi and meet with the city staff to help figure out how to fix the ongoing water problem.
The city has said that the water boil advisory could be lifted no earlier than Tuesday, after the new disinfectant makes its way through the entire city.
Residents are fed up with the constant water problems. Yvonne Perry, a Corpus Christi resident, told Heavy:
The leaders of this community for the last 20 years have worked hard at personal agenda vs much needed infrastructure. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have federal protection against poor water quality like we do air.
The water boil advisory extends beyond just drinking water. Corpus Christi residents also shouldn’t use tap water for brushing their teeth, washing their hands while preparing food, or washing dishes (unless the dishes are rinsed for a minute in a bleach solution). When taking baths or showers, residents can use the water “if absolutely necessary,” but should be careful not to swallow the water or get it in their eyes or nose. Pets should only be given bottled or boiled and cooled water, too.
2. The Water Problem Stems From a Cheaper Disinfectant that ‘Bypasses the Rule,’ Along with Decaying Water Pipes
Brockovich spoke with KRIS-TV and told them that the biggest issue was the ammonia in Corpus Christi’s water system, which is a cheap way to pass federal regulations:
It bypasses the rule and they’re cheating the system. And in turn, you’re cheating all of those people in Corpus Christi out of their right to clean water.”
Ammonia may be cheap to use, but it’s trouble in the long run. It suppresses and bonds with chlorine in the water, she said, which produces hazardous material and can rust the city’s cast iron pipes:
(The city is) creating this caustic, toxic fallout that your consumers are now having to drink.”
Another problem plaguing Corpus Christi’s water supply is the state of the pipe infrastructure itself, Mark Van Vleck, assistant city manager, told KRIS-TV. He said the pipes were an even bigger problem and needed funding and fixing.
This fits with a theory that deferred maintenance and replacement is at the heart of the problem. Dan Biles, former Corpus Christi assistant city manager, told The Corpus Christi Caller Times that the city historically doesn’t replace anything at a fast enough pace to keep up with failure rates:
You’re running on a system strung together and one mistake or problem can be the downfall of the system.”
The city has 225 miles of cast iron pipes, most of which were built between 1950 and 1959. Van Vleck, assistant city manager, said that many of those pipes are badly decayed and slow down water flow, which adds to the disinfectant problem. In May 2015, Corpus Christi adopted a plan to finally begin replacing the old pipes, but it will cost about $60 million total. The city only allocated $2.3 million annually to the replacements.
3. The Corpus Christi City Manager Resigned in the Middle of the Water Crisis
This is the city’s third water boil notice in 10 months. Ron Olson, the city manager since March 2011, resigned just a few days after the water boil notice started, saying that he had to be held accountable.
But he also left without fixing the latest problem.
In the city’s press release about Olson’s departure, Olson noted that he wasn’t leaving just because of the water problems. “This is something I have been thinking about for a long time and I feel now is the right time,” he said in his resignation letter.
Although the water problem is the city’s most obvious issue right now, Corpus Christi has been having a lot of problems for quite a while, and residents are tired of it. Poor upkeep of city parks and a “long-running street maintenance crisis,” as described by the Caller Times, are just two of those issues.
Dawn Perry, a Corpus Christi resident, told Heavy that the water problems are only the tip of the iceberg:
All of our streets are dilapidated and not being repaired … city land (parks included) are never mowed, I mean the list goes on and on. The water is of course the major issue… Where are our tax dollars being spent? The city isn’t doing basic maintenance for the standard upkeep of our city. Why? And no one is being held accountable. Why is the director of the water department still employed today? He is obviously not doing his job. Who is going to be held accountable?!”
Residents want more people held accountable for these issues. In fact, a petition is circulating demanding new management of the city’s water department. You can sign it here.
4. Local Businesses Are Facing Increased Expenses That Are Tough to Cover
The water boil advisory is hitting everyone hard, but local businesses are especially suffering. Restaurants are taking the toughest hit. They can no longer serve fountain drinks and recipes take longer to prepare with the need to boil water before it’s used. On a Reddit thread about the water boil, employees of local restaurants talked about some of their issues. One person said they couldn’t steam their buns and the manager had to buy cans of soda to sell, since they couldn’t serve most of the drinks on their menu.
Samantha Person, owner of the Cattery Cat Shelter in Corpus Christi, told Heavy that animal shelters are facing an increase in cost from having to switch to bottled water. The city has said that pets should be given bottled or boiled water, but most shelters aren’t equipped to boil all the water their cats, dogs, and other animals drink.
“We didn’t have a way to boil water at the shelter,” Person said. “So we don’t have a choice and have to buy water. This takes more time and, of course, the cost adds up. We’ve easily spent over $100 plus staff time to purchase water, and we may have over a week to go! $100 probably doesn’t sound like much, but every dollar counts for us.”
The water boil advisory is also impacting schools and jails, The Corpus Christi Caller-Times reported. The Corpus Christi Independent School District has spent $63,000 on bottled water since the boil advisory went into effect, averaging out to nearly $15,000 a day. As of Friday, the Nueces County Jail and Juvenile Detention Center had spent more than $6,700 on bottled water.
Some residents are so fed up that they’re starting to refer to Flint, Michigan as their “sister city”:
And others are just calling Corpus Christi hell:
Or comparing it to third-world regions:
Some residents have taken to using products such as a chlorine-removing shower filter that can be purchased at stores like Home Depot. This won’t make your water safe to drink, but when the chlorine moves into your lines, it can help reduce the smell and skin irritations from showering in water with higher levels of chlorine disinfectant.
5. Corpus Christi Has Had Decades of Water Problems, Including the Water Turning Pink or Purple
In addition to the three water boil advisories in the last 10 months, the city has had numerous other water crises over the course of decades. In July 2015, a boil notice was issued after E. coli was found in the water.
In 2007, the Caller Times ran an article informing residents in a poetic format: “It may be pink and stink, but water safe to drink.” The article explained that because city officials switched from a chlorine/ammonia blend to a straight chlorine disinfectant to resolve problems, residents would see their water looking red or pink and have a strong chlorine smell, but it was still OK to drink.
The same thing happened in 1996, when residents were warned that their water had turned “shades of pink and purple” but it was still safe to drink. That time, the color was caused because a filtration plant accidentally released too much potassium permanganate. The chemical had been used to offset changes in the water’s taste and smell. At the time, the city mayor, Mary Rhodes, went on TV and drank an 8 ounce glass of pink water to prove that it was safe. Rhodes died in 1997 from cancer at the age of 49. Her cancer was apparently unrelated to the water, but some residents at the time still felt uncomfortable about the whole thing.
With the addition of more chlorine in the city water supply, residents will likely be dealing with smelly water that reminds them of a swimming pool all over again. They just hope that this time around, the third time will really be a charm and the city will fix the problem so they don’t have to deal with this again in a few months.