‘Lessons to learn’: Businesses shake back from Houston’s boil water notice

HOUSTON – Houston’s boil water notice lasted roughly 37 hours, ending Tuesday morning with lab test results giving the city’s water supply a clean bill of health.

“Of those 29 samples, not one of them had any sort of contaminants,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner on Tuesday.

Still, the notice, and subsequent questions about the integrity of the city’s water system raised concern.

Businesses shuttered temporarily. Parents scrambled to find childcare if they could. Then there was the water grab at grocery stores citywide.

Given the optics, what effect, if any, did the boil water scare have on the local economy?

Experts say not much.

“The effect was probably small. But it wasn’t zero,” said Dietrich Vollrath, chairman of the economics department at the University of Houston.

Professor Vollrath says this week’s water scare boils down to more of a short-term nuisance because the problem didn’t last long.

“A big impact in this would be, ‘Hey the water treatment plant shut down, and we don’t know when it will be back up.’ That’s a very different world from what we got,” Vollrath said, drawing a contrast to the deep freeze of Feb. 2021.

In sum, Vollrath says uncertainty plays a big role in determining whether an event will trigger economic unease.

“A lot of economic decisions are keyed off uncertainty,” he said, continuing, “people can make quick short run adaptations, but they didn’t have to fundamentally change.”

What caused the main transformer and backup transformer to fail at the East Water Purification Plant is under review by the Mayor’s office.

While city leaders have not said how that review will take shape, Professor Vollrath said any long-term assurance about the integrity of the city’s water supply infrastructure matters -- especially on the business front.

“Is this something I now need to worry about,” he asked, hypothetically, depending on the city’s findings. Whatever the results, he said an answer is necessary on the economic front.

“If it’s just a one-time blip, it’s a one-time blip. If it tells us something about being more worried about potential water shut off a couple weeks from now, well then that starts to have real economic implications,” Vollrath said.

About the Author:

Emmy and Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist. NOLA born and bred, though #HoustonStrong, with stops in Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut in along the way.