This article has been updated.
San Antonio Water System crews battled harsh winter conditions through Monday night and into Tuesday morning, helping to keep water and sewage flowing through the utility’s network of pipes.
But SAWS leaders are warning that the worst consequence of the deep freeze for the local water system could actually be the thaw. The melting of frozen pipes all over San Antonio on Wednesday will likely lead to huge numbers of water leaks from ruptured pipes, SAWS Chief Operating Officer Steve Clouse said.
“We’re going to see a multitude of homes that have frozen pipes that are broken that start to bleed water everywhere,” Clouse told the San Antonio Report on Tuesday. “Our next big operational challenge is how are we going to get those people to fix those leaks.”
That’s why SAWS is urging people to keep close watch on their properties Wednesday as temperatures increase. If they see a leak, the best thing to do is to shut their water off at the SAWS meter, Clouse said.
“That’s really the only way they’re going to be able to get that leak to stop,” Clouse said. “Normally we don’t tell people to do that – we don’t want them messing with the meter.”
As freezing temperatures in San Antonio are expected to continue through Friday, many residents reported losing water pressure or having no water service at all. Vanessa Shelton, who lives in the Dignowity Hill area , said her water shut off after snow blanketed San Antonio Sunday night.
“Monday morning, when I woke up and went to turn on my faucet, I had no water,” said Shelton, who by Wednesday morning was getting a slow stream of water through her faucet.
SAWS tweeted Tuesday that ongoing electricity shortages have caused low pressure and outages in the SAWS system. Responses to that tweet included people asking for more information and for assistance with their own water issues.
“How long will we be without water?” one user asked. “We can’t drive to the store and get water so we will run out fast.”
SAWS Communications Manager Anne Hayden explained Wednesday that if water pumping stations lose power, SAWS works to compensate water supply from other pumping stations to areas with water outages. SAWS has 200 pumping stations in San Antonio, some of which have been affected by power outages. She also said that pumping stations do not necessarily serve the immediate area in which they are located.
“Your water may not come from your neighborhood, but it may,” she said. “And [having water access] all depends on how the electricity is being served.”
SAWS doesn’t fix leaks on private property. The utility offers help for low-income customers through its programs such as Plumbers to People, but most property owners will have to fix leaks on their own. That likely will prove difficult with plumbing services in high demand across Texas.
“Plumbers will be very busy,” Clouse said. “I’m sure they’re going to have challenges getting plumbers scheduled and out.”
Frozen pipes are most likely in older neighborhoods with homes built on airy pier-and-beam foundations and not on concrete slabs, Clouse said. Older neighborhoods near downtown are particularly vulnerable.
But when temperatures are dropping into the single digits, below what most plumbing is Texas is designed for, no part of town will be immune from burst pipes.
“Near West Side, South Side, near East Side – those older sections of the city built before we started throwing slabs everywhere – are probably where I would think we’ll see the most of it,” Clouse said. “But that doesn’t mean areas out in Helotes where people froze the slab, and now they have freezing internal to the slab, that we won’t see a lot of problems out there too.”
Clouse, who has worked for SAWS for more than 30 years, added that his own plumbing is frozen.
“I’ve got some faucets and some internal [plumbing] that works,” Clouse said. “I feel a little guilty about that. Seems like I’d be smarter than that, but I did everything that I knew to do.”
‘I thought we were kind of losing the war’
Clouse said he and SAWS Vice President Jeff Haby, who runs the utility’s sewer operations, were among the employees who spent all night dealing with weather-related problems Monday and early Tuesday.
The freezing rain and snow left much of SAWS’ radio-controlled equipment unable to communicate, he said. Crews had to check readings manually.
“We couldn’t see what was going on in some parts of our system,” Clouse said. “We didn’t know if a pump was coming online or off. We couldn’t track what the system was saying to us. We had to double-check everything.”
Four of SAWS’ major water supply pipelines, including the Vista Ridge pipeline and another from Canyon Lake, stopped delivering water late Monday, Clouse said.
“All four of [their operators] called us … and said, ‘We’re freezing, we have to go offline,’” Clouse said. “And it all happened about the same time.”
SAWS also struggled with the loss of power to one of its most significant mechanical lift stations that can serve as a chokepoint for raw sewage if not working properly. The station is connected to one of CPS Energy’s critical circuits, which Clouse called the “do-not-turn-off list.”
“That was a problem we had to work through with [CPS Energy],” he said. “Every time our guys would get it restored, they’d drive away, and 45 minutes later, it’s off again.”
Clouse admitted that around 3 a.m., they began to feel defeat set in. He told SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente that “I thought we were kind of losing the war.”
“It kind of seemed like things were failing faster than we could get in front of them,” Clouse said. “From that point on through early [Tuesday] morning, it feels like we’ve gotten over the hill somehow.”
Since then, the water utility has gotten most of its pipelines flowing again, except for a few areas in northwest Bexar County along Interstate 10 and the rural southern part of the county near the Atascosa County line.
“While we don’t have service restored everywhere, like out in the northwest, I’m pretty confident we’re going to be able to get there, if not today, then probably early tomorrow,” Clouse said Tuesday.
SAWS officials did not have estimates available of how many of the utility’s customers don’t have water. Clouse said most likely are experiencing frozen pipes at their home.
“They’ve got frozen pipes and they probably are thinking it’s [SAWS],” Clouse said. “In some limited cases, it might be us, although I seriously doubt it.”
Reporter Jackie Wang contributed to this article.