When it comes to problems with Houston's water supply, the well runs deep
Years ago, I was employed by a Houston contracting company that specialized in underground utilities and water/waste water treatment plants.
When it came time to “bid” on a job, a company representative would carry the polished proposal along with a walkie-talkie down to City Hall, where the bidding commenced. On occasion, I went along.
About a week before this day, the energy throughout the office was palpable. Imagine some combination of a college freshman preparing for rush week and a political consultant working "the war room” on election night. The key words here are “rush” and “war.” By the day of the bidding, it felt like riding atop a fast-moving freight train.
I cannot tell you one knowledgeable fact as to the specific details in these proposals, nor can I speak any more intelligently as to exactly how or why a company is awarded the job.
I can, however, tell you one thing based on my limited experience: Water is all about politics, pure and simple. Well, maybe not so pure.
I’m reminded of this water business because of two recent investigative reports broken by KHOU reporter Mark Greenblatt on TV and khou.com.
The first article online, posted December 23, 2010, opens with this:
A radioactive water well that is controlled by the City of Houston, and that serves residents of Jersey Village, is no longer being used, according to the communications director for Houston Mayor Annise Parker. A KHOU-TV investigation revealed Jersey Village water well #3 was one of ten water wells identified by recent federal tests as having tested high for a particularly damaging form of radiation called alpha radiation.
‘Twas the season of hurry, I realized, but this was sure news to me!
In addition, the city says it is no longer using Spring Branch water well #6. That well was found to have smaller levels of radiation by the draft USGS [U.S. Geological Survey] report, but not enough to approach the legal limit. Instead, the federal agency found it had tested double the legal limit for arsenic, another carcinogen that can cause cancer and other ill health effects.
Yikes! Granted, I may still have too much Gulf oil spill on the brain, but something sure smells familiar to me. It's a story that may be bigger than it seems now, involving toxic chemicals and local government (which often, in my view, can make national government look like The Sound of Music).
Truth is, politics abounds. Getting the facts is 99.9 percent of the work.
Earlier this week, city council member and former police chief C.O. “Brad” Bradford criticized city leaders for not doing more, sooner. He reviewed the draft copy of the USGS report, which revealed that radiation was detected in nearly every groundwater well the federal agency tested in Houston. The draft was delivered to city officials in the public works department in September.
'Neighborhoods in Houston should be on notice,’ Bradford said. 'We have a problem with the drinking water and use of water in Houston, Texas.'
Mayor Annise Parker was questioned about all this in a press conference.
MAYOR PARKER: ‘We have a safe water system, and we do not provide unsafe water.
KHOU: You say again the water is ‘safe.’ In your opinion, how much radiation is it safe to drink?
MAYOR PARKER: 'You know I have no idea what goes into the technical water qualifications of our water system. We follow EPA guidelines.’
Which brings up another important point, and one that I share with a council member.
Other elected leaders, like council member Jolanda Jones, don’t think those EPA guidelines go far enough. She recently spoke to concerned residents of Houston’s Chasewood neighborhood, who were exposed to many years’ worth of radioactive water from a city water well that consistently tested higher than the EPA legal limit for alpha radiation.
Equally as troubling to me was the paragraph that followed. As the saying goes, “The devil’s in the details.”
However, because water wells in other neighborhoods in Houston are served by wells with less radiation, Houston’s water supply as an entire ‘system’ stayed in compliance with federal regulations. As a result, Chasewood residents were never warned of what Jones calls a real danger to their neighborhood.
Now, I ain’t no Dudley Do-Right, but does this sound like the golden rule or just plain common sense to you?
In a second article posted on January 7, 2011, Greenblatt opens with a meeting of the water committee of Houston’s City Council. If you’re living in the City of Houston, I recommend you take a read.
The fact that the powers that be are at least gathering and attempting to deal with the problem does sound encouraging, but while I’m no engineer or elected official, it sure seems like there’s room for improvement. Not just with our water quality, but with how we respond to these problems — not as politicians or elected officials, but first, as citizens.
So who’s the hero in all this? In my book, it's KHOU investigative reporter Mark Greenblatt.
Interestingly, last year the City of Houston laid a new water line down our street. Since then, my skin has felt like that of an elephant's and my hair’s gone limp and turned brittle. Our bath towels feel like paper towels. No joke.
Next week, our plumber is scheduled to come out and price a water softener. But now I’m wondering. “Hard” water may be the least of my worries.