My Austin apartment has always been drafty, hard to heat when it's cold out, and hard to cool in the summer. But on February 17th, our third day without power, when I ventured into the kitchen for some bread my roommate and I could eat for breakfast, I found ice in our sink and a knot formed in my gut. We were without power, without heat, and, as we soon learned, without clean water as well -- we didn’t even have the electricity we needed to boil the water and make it clean. We expect heat in our homes, we expect water in our faucets, but Winter Storm Uri left too many of us robbed of the certainty that our drinking water was, in fact, clean.
As a clean water activist in Austin, it was a scary moment. I know better than most that our water infrastructure system is fragile -- I was probably one of the few Texans who read the American Society of Civil Engineer’s report that gave our state’s drinking water a “C-”. But there is a difference between knowing that a system is vulnerable and experiencing that vulnerability. Even as late as March 5th -- two weeks after the storm -- three public water utilities were still inoperable and 46 thousand people were still under a water boil notice, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). We didn’t invest in our water infrastructure and we suffered the consequences. And unfortunately, we can’t say we weren’t warned.
Winter Storm Uri was not Texas’s first water-boil-notice rodeo. In 2018, Austin issued a city-wide water boil notice when catastrophic rains and the accompanying floods clogged the city’s water treatment plants with dirt washed from the Texas Hill Country. The event was a clear signal that our water infrastructure was delicate. After the catastrophe, the City made a conscious effort to revamp water emergency procedures, but we never came together to figure out how to prevent these emergencies in the first place.
The Hill Country Flood caused silt to wash into our waterways because the basic water infrastructure we rely on has remained old, worn out, and concrete-based. When we cover our landscape with concrete, water that falls on top must runoff over the surface. As it does so it gathers velocity until it is strong enough to wash away our garden beds and the banks of our streams, that is that soil that clogged our treatment plants and caused a water boil notice. Nature-based infrastructure could have solved the problem. Unlike concrete pipes and pond systems, nature-based water infrastructure harnesses the power of water to soak into the soil, where it can be filtered of pollutants and recharge our aquifers instead of flooding communities downstream.
Nature-based infrastructure helped in the winter storm as well. For example, my friends from the Hill Country who weathered the winter storm with rainwater harvesting systems were mostly spared water issues during the freeze, while those with complicated municipal systems were more likely to have been left without water as pipes froze and pumps lost power. Again and again, nature-based systems -- the ones that can adapt and grow in the face of adversary -- are the ones which will make our community and our water system more resilient.
These systems are not just “weatherized” for the next winter storm, but they also make use of nature's own resilience to protect themselves, and us. I think about Bagby street in Houston, a system of rain gardens and bioswales planted to help clean stormwater runoff from the street before it entered Buffalo Bayou. Not only do the rain gardens filter out 73-93% of pollutants in the water they treat, but the updates also reduce June temperatures on the street by over 20 degrees and capture all the stormwater from a 2-year storm event, preventing flooding downstream. That’s fantastic. And, unlike pipes leading to a water treatment plant, gardens won’t break in the next big freeze.
Bagby street is not the only nature-based water infrastructure feature in Texas. From San Antonio’s Confluence Park to UT El Paso’s Bioswale system, nature-based techniques are being embraced all over our state. And this legislative session, our lawmakers in Austin are embracing funding mechanisms to make more of these projects possible. On April 21st, the passage of HB 2350 marked the first time a bill solely dedicated to nature-based infrastructure had been endorsed by Texas lawmakers. For me, it was thrilling just to hear folks like Representative Cody Harris (R-Palestine) describing the nature-based projects that protect the Trinity RIver in his district, or see Representative Erin Zwiener (D-Driftwood) laying out all the many benefits that these natural projects bring. But most exciting is the thought that with the passage of this bill, which still needs to be approved by the Senate and signed by the governor, we can help protect communities throughout the state.
HB 2350 will provide financial assistance to communities seeking to improve their stormwater infrastructure resilience through nature-based projects, so cities and towns can build their own networks of rain gardens. “Texans have faced a multitude of natural disasters just in the last few years,” Representative Zwiener, author of the bill told me. “Investing in our infrastructure supports resilient communities.” Since the storm, there is still a night every few weeks when I wake up cold in the night, fearful that the power has gone back out. I slip out of bed, turn on my faucet, and run it until the water warms, to remind myself that both heat and water are truly back. When my friends from other states ask, I say I hope that this storm was a state-wide wake up call. But in reality I don’t have to hope. I know that we will tackle this issue; we are Texans and we rise to challenges. The Texas wildflowers are blooming along our highways, and we will continue to push for resilience in the same way they do: by turning to the tried and true nature-based systems that always have our back.