Energy & Environment

Report: Houston’s Water Conservation Efforts Lag Other Texas Cities

Houston’s aging pipelines took the spotlight in February when a burst water main flooded part of the East Loop and left some communities with little or no water. A new report shows Houston has a ways to go when it comes to addressing water conservation.

Downtown From Buffalo Bayou
A view of downtown Houston from the eastern stretch of Buffalo Bayou.

Water conservation in Houston has gotten worse over the past four years, according to the latest Texas Water Conservation Scorecard.

Put together by the Texas Living Waters Project, the scorecard measures water utilities across Texas based on their conservation efforts. Overall, the report found utilities across Texas have shown little improvement over the past four years. Houston's score dropped five points since the last report was released in 2016.

Jennifer Walker, Deputy Director of Texas Water Programs at the National Wildlife Federation, said Houston fared worse in the report because of an increase in water loss in its distribution system. Water loss rose from 11% four years ago to 17% in its most recent water audit.

"It’s one of those things that's kind of out of sight, out of mind. The distribution system is underground, a lot of the water loss we don’t see except for those big water main breaks," Walker said. "But it requires sustained investment over the years to maintain our distribution systems."

Houston's aging pipelines took the spotlight in February when a burst water main flooded part of the East Loop and left parts of Houston with little or no water.

Walker said Houston has committed to upgrading its aging infrastructure in recent years, but that the increase in water loss over the past four years suggests further efforts are needed.

When it comes to per capita water use, Houston fared much better. Gallons used per person per day decreased from 144 gallons in 2013 to 129 gallons in 2019.

But the researchers said this is likely the result of record rainfall from 2015- 2017, which reduces the need for outdoor watering, one of the biggest water uses in other cities.

"One doesn’t really water their lawn when their house is flooded,” Walker said. “So there’s some noise in that data."

Crews work to repair a burst water main near the East Loop in February. The broken pipe flooded the area, impacted water access and led to a boil water notice.

Walker said as the region continues to grow there could be water supply pressure in the future.

"The only way that we’re really going to be able to have water to serve both our cities and the environment is to make sure that we use water efficiently because there is a finite amount to go around," she said.

Ken Kramer, the Water Resources Chair for the Texas Sierra Club, said frequent flooding can make it harder to talk about water conservation in Houston.

"That of course makes people think that too much water is the problem, not too little water," he said. "Unfortunately over the long term, we may see hotter and drier years ahead, and water conservation may become much more important."

The last time Houston had a major drought was 2011.

Kramer also said that Houston has yet to implement a robust water conservation program.

"Among the large cities [in Texas], Houston really has one of the lowest levels of effort at water conservation," he said.

Kramer said examples of water conservation initiatives could include placing limitations on outdoor landscape watering. Houston is currently working towards this goal — implementing a water conservation plan, which includes a twice-per-week outdoor watering restriction, is one of the initiatives in its Resilient Houston plan.

View the full Texas Water Conservation Scorecard, here.