Since the alarming water ban in December of 2016, Corpus Christi has had far fewer water quality incidents. They implemented a precautionary water boil advisory on August 25th during hurricane Harvey, which was a responsible reaction to the disaster. There was also a water boil advisory in January 2018 for the naval air base in Corpus Christi due to a water main break, but it didn't affect the city's residents. Corpus Christi has made some changes to their backflow prevention program since the water ban and have reversed some of the practices that led to it. For the past eighteen months, however, they've still been dealing with the aftermath of the December 2016 episode.
One month after the scare, water officials were still trying to piece together what actually happened. It's oddly still unclear whether there was a backflow preventer present, or if it had failed. Local news was unable to say for certain which it was and, additionally, whether the chemical Indulin AA-86 was ever present in the system at all. This uncertainty comes partly from the fact that samples of the water taken by the TCEQ December 15th-18th came back negative for the contaminant. However, starting on December 1st, there were repeated calls about the quality of the water. The calls led to the investigation and a flush of the system by the TCEQ and EPA. According to the TCEQ and their reports during the situation, there was indeed a backflow preventer present at the site. Whatever the facts, many residents had to go without water for four days. The companies deemed responsible, Valero and Ergon Asphalt and Emulsions, Inc. have been subject to multiple lawsuits. In response to the water ban, the city council began holding talks about how to improve their water system and keep this from happening again.
At first, the city council reportedly was disinclined to change existing codes. They opted for better enforcement of their current codes. Basically, they decided that if a customer didn't comply with backflow testing regulations, their water could be cut off. At the time, 39% of residential and 13% of commercial businesses were delinquent regarding backflow prevention. This didn't take into account some industrial customers, because they are technically outside city limits and aren't beholden to city codes. To solve that problem, the city council introduced new requirements for the 79 industrial companies. Going forward they'll need to file annual paperwork showing site plans with infrastructure location and maintenance records, accompanied by an affidavit. They'll also need to have their backflow preventers tested, show the locations of all backflow prevention devices, and have an engineer sign off that all potential hazards have been addressed. The rules were created shortly after the water ban, and the city gave the industrial companies two weeks to comply. As of December 2017, one year after the ban, only half of the companies had complied, and the city was allowing the rest extensions. Just this month, June 2018, the city has decided to relax regulations on residential water customers. They've said the risks related to residential backflow preventers are much lower and therefore, backflow preventers need not be tested every three years. Now they are only required to be tested when installed or after a repair. In many cities, backflow preventers are tested annually and it's unclear what caused this backwards decision.
The city also created a backflow prevention program, and hired a new water director, Clarence Wittwer, intent on repairing public trust. Additionally, three new water towers are being built to help improve the city's water pressure. Corpus Christi has dealt with water pressure problems for a long time and it's a very common problem for older cities. Unfortunately, low pressure can lead to backflow and installing backflow preventers exacerbates the problem by further lowering the pressure. Installing the water towers should lead to less backflow and better backflow prevention.
Corpus Christi Made Much Needed Progress
Obviously, Corpus Christi's city council, water department, and city manager have taken their water quality problems seriously and made some necessary changes over the past 18 months. It's important that their efforts are recognized. It's also important to note, however, that some of their problems originated not from a lack of regulation, but from a lack of follow-through. Their requirements weren't always enforced, which the city council has even admitted when deciding whether to move forward with new requirements or to simply try harder to enforce the old ones. Meanwhile, the Texas Council of Environmental Quality has issued a statement citing multiple complaints about the city's water quality over two years. The fines would total more than $12,000 and include violations such as failure to test backflow prevention devices annually. This article in IAPMO's Backflow Prevention Journal gives a great summary of the penalties assessed by the TCEQ. Since some of the violations have already been addressed by Corpus Christi, it's unclear what the final fine may be, and whether the city will instead put that money toward a "Supplemental Environmental Project" overseen by the TCEQ. Hopefully the city's water woes are at an end.