In no uncertain terms, easy and equitable access to clean water is an absolute necessity for a prosperous Houston and its residents. And while many dedicated local officials and nonprofit organizations work to maintain the safety and drinkability of Houston’s water supply, some troubling trends require our region’s attention and action in order to keep our water supply healthy for all.
Working to protect our region’s water resources will require the awareness, input and action from people across the region — all of which starts with exploring the data.
1) Houston’s water supply is decreasing relative to our population growth
As Greater Houston’s population grows, so too does our water usage. Though our region’s supply is currently strong, careful use and conservation will be essential to maintaining and extending our resources for future generations.
In Fort Bend and Harris Counties, water withdrawals increased between 2010 and 2015.
In the three-county region’s two most populous counties — Fort Bend and Harris — water supply (also known as “withdrawals,” which refers to water taken from the ground or surface for use in homes, businesses, industries and food production) increased between 2010 and 2015 (most recent data available). Unsurprisingly, Harris County extracted the most water in 2015, withdrawing 287 milligals per day, up 2.5% from 2010. Similarly, withdrawals in Fort Bend County increased by 2.1% over the same time period, while Montgomery County withdrew less water in 2015 than in 2010.
The amount of publicly-supplied water per capita decreased between 2010 and 2015.
Withdrawals supplement water collected from rain which is also used for similar purposes, so while this measure is not a comprehensive indicator of a community’s total water supply, it is an important one, particularly within the context of population. The available water supply relative to the overall population (per capita) decreased in all three counties between 2010 and 2015. The decline in availability was most severe in Harris County, where supply dropped by nearly 15% over the 5-year period. A recent report from Texas Living Waters Project found that water conservation in Houston has worsened recently, primarily as a result of water loss in its distribution system (such as from leaking pipes). More broadly, Texas2036 reports that if Texas were hit with a drought today, the state would be unable to meet one-fourth of its water needs — calling on policymakers to reduce Texas’ water shortage by 40% by 2036.
2) Drinking water contamination levels are (mostly) low
While we need to continue to monitor our water use, the good news is that our drinking water presents low levels of contamination and is generally safe to drink.
Water contamination is typically tracked by measuring levels of coliform bacteria, which indicate the presence of human or animal waste. One commonly recognized coliform bacteria is E. Coli, which is often harmless but can cause serious illness depending on the strain. Water contamination is also determined by the presence of non-coliform bacteria, harmful environmental organisms and inorganic chemicals.
A 2018 study conducted in Harris County — the largest county in the state — found that 150 out of nearly 63,000 water samples contained a presence of coliform bacteria (0.24%). However, the presence of inorganic contaminants was noticeably higher. In the same study, 7.6% of 24,300 non-coliform samples exceeded limits for compounds possibly connected to industrial waste in the region.
3) Most Houston-area waterways are unsafe for human exposure
While our drinking water supplies are mostly safe, our natural bodies of water are another story. While large bodies of water aren’t usually the first thing people envision when they hear the name Houston, we didn’t get the nickname “The Bayou City” by accident. As home to four major bayous and more than 2,500 miles of waterways, the health of local bodies of water is an important indicator of our region’s larger environmental condition.
Nearly 900 miles of the region’s water streams, or 60%, are contaminated and unsafe for human consumption/exposure.
Harris County has twice as many miles of impaired water streams as unimpaired streams.
In Harris County, 71%, or 515 miles, of water streams are impaired, as are 52% of Montgomery County’s. While Fort Bend County has more miles of unimpaired streams than impaired streams, 43% of waterways are still unsafe. These ground or surface water streams are largely made unsafe by bacterial contamination, likely created by malfunctioning wastewater treatment plants, overflowing sewers and failing septic systems.
4) Less trash is being thrown into our waterways
Industrial pollution and waste management practices account for much of the contamination found in Houston-area waterways and groundwater, but trash and litter from individual residents also plays a role in the condition of our waterways. Fortunately, recent data suggest that littering and trash dumping in waterways is on the decline in the Houston area.
Each year, residents across the state join hands to remove waste and debris from our waterways during the annual Trash Bash. In recent years, Trash Bash volunteers have been finding and collecting far less trash than they used to.
After peaking in 2001, the amount of trash collected from Houston-area waterways has drastically declined.
In 2019, Trash Bash volunteers collected 56.5 tons of trash from Houston-area waterways, compared to 107.5 tons collected ten years prior, and 212.5 tons collected in 2001. While the Trash Bash is not a scientific study, the volume of trash collected does paint a picture of the amount of litter contaminating our waterways — and less trash collected can reasonably be interpreted as good news for our local environment.
Protecting Houston’s water supply is a job for everyone
When it comes to water quality in Houston, each of us can take meaningful steps to conserve and protect our region’s water for all residents throughout our region.
From reducing wasteful consumption to participating in local cleanup efforts and reaching out to your local officials with concerns and suggestions, there are many ways we can make a difference in our community.
Want to get involved? Check out these nonprofit organizations that do amazing work to protect our region’s water supply and see when and where you can help out:
- Bayou City Waterkeeper
- Bayou Land Conservancy
- Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC)
- Texans for Clean Water
- Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Service (TEJAS)
To keep up with the latest data on Houston’s water quality, environmental health and more, be sure to follow Understanding Houston on social media, subscribe to our newsletter and hear more from community voices.