Old pipes cause Texas cities to lose tens of billions of gallons of water each year

Water spews out of a fire hydrant as a San Antonio Water System crew works to fix a water main break near Hunt Lane and Adams Hill in San Antonio, TX on August 18, 2022. Credit: Chris Stokes for The Texas Tribune

Texas’ most populous cities lost roughly 88 billion gallons of water last year because of aging water infrastructure and extreme heat, costing them millions of dollars and straining the state’s water supply, according to self-reported water loss audits.

The documents show that bigger municipalities are not immune to water issues often seen in smaller, less-resourced communities around the state. All but one big city saw increased water loss from last year’s audits.

While cities are losing water because of inaccurate meters or other data issues, the main factors are leaks and main breaks.

Here’s how much each of Texas’ biggest cities lost last year, according to their self-reported audits:

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Houston: 31.8 billion

San Antonio: 19.5 billion

Dallas: 17.6 billion

Austin: 7.1 billion

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Fort Worth: 5.9 billion

El Paso: 4.8 billion

Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth and El Paso must submit water loss audits to the Texas Water Development Board yearly. Other water agencies must do audits only every five years, unless the city has over 3,300 connections or receives money from the board.

“What we have right now is not sustainable [or] tenable,” said Jennifer Walker, National Wildlife Federation’s Texas Coast and Water Program director.

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The cities of Houston and Dallas saw the biggest increase in lost water reported. Houston saw a 30% jump from last year’s audit, while Dallas saw an increase of 18%.

Houston is the largest populous city in the state, home to roughly 2.3 million Texans; it lost around 31 billion gallons of water last year.

Houston Public Works blames the region’s long drought from June 2022 to December last year for the increase. Droughts cause clay in soil to dry up and shrink, stressing older water lines and making them more likely to break and leak. Officials said this, combined with aging infrastructure, led to a significant increase in water leaks across the city.

“HPW will continue to pursue all funding options available to help replace aging infrastructure,” the Houston spokesperson said.

Aging infrastructure isn’t only a Houston problem. Dallas officials said they only expected a roughly 4% increase in water loss in 2023. They saw a double-digit increase instead.

A Dallas Water Utilities spokesperson said the city is investigating the cause of the increase and “reviewing records to ensure all allowable unbilled/unmetered authorized uses were properly accounted for in the 2023 calculation.”

On the other side of North Texas, Fort Worth saw an increase from 5.6 billion gallons lost in 2022 to 5.9 billion gallons in 2023, losing Cowtown more than $8 million.

Walker, from the National Wildlife Federation, said numbers are also rising because cities are getting more accurate in reporting water loss.

Fort Worth has a “MyH2O program” that replaced all manual read meters with remote read meters and implemented a Real Water Loss Management Plan in 2020 to focus the city efforts related to leak surveys, leak detection and the creation of district metering areas.

“It is actually a testament to how we are using available data to make better decisions and improve reporting with a higher level of confidence,” said Fort Worth Water Conservation Manager Micah Reed.

Last year, voters passed a proposition that created a new fund specifically for water infrastructure projects that are overseen by the Texas Water Development Board.

The agency now has $1 billion to invest in projects that address various issues, from water loss and quality to acquiring new water sources and addressing Texas’ deteriorating pipes. It’s the largest investment in water infrastructure by state lawmakers since 2013.

Walker calls the $1 billion a “drop in the bucket.”

Texas 2036, an Austin-based think tank, expects the state needs to spend more than $150 billion over the next 50 years on water infrastructure.

While some of the Texas Water Fund must be focused on projects in rural areas with populations of less than 150,000, Walker said the bigger cities could also receive some funding.

In San Antonio, the San Antonio Water System isn’t “waiting for [the state] to come and tackle the problem for us.”

The city lost around 19 billion gallons of water in 2023 and has seen an increase over the last five years.

“We’re in a state that doesn’t even fund public education,” said Robert Puente, president and CEO of the San Antonio Water System. “So good luck to us getting some money from the state on these issues.”

Earlier this week, the SAWS board of trustees unanimously approved a new five-year water conservation plan.

The city of Austin lost around 7 billion gallons of water in 2023.

Austin has hired a consultant to review it’s water loss practices and metrics, according to city officials. The capital city is also in the process of replacing water mains around Austin.

Walker said while Texas lawmakers should invest more money in water infrastructure, city officials also need to hire more staff and better planning to address water loss.

The one city that lost less water in 2023 was El Paso, which reported losing 475 million fewer gallons last year. Since El Paso is in the desert, water conservation and having a “watertight” infrastructure is the city’s main focus, said Aide Fuentes, El Paso Wastewater Treatment Manager.

“That makes us a little bit different from the rest of Texas in that sense,” Fuentes said.

El Paso Water officials aim to reduce water loss by 10%.

Walker said the data shows that cities should make the case to state lawmakers to continue addressing water infrastructure in the next legislative session. She added this issue isn’t going away.

“We really need [to] try to live with what we have and not lose the water that we already have in place and make sure that it’s reaching its intended destination,” Walker said.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.