HOUSTON — Houston has a gusher of a problem -- about 500 new calls for water leaks each week compared to 300 this time last year.
“The pipe on the other street was broke, and now this one just broke,” homeowner Debra Francis said.
“We’ve had quite a few water leaks over here,” Pam Franklin said.
The flood of complaints to the city’s 311 helpline is draining the patience of homeowners like Gloria Powell, who said she has little to no water pressure.
“I have not gotten a response yet,” Powell said. “I’ll call every day if I have to.”
Mayor Sylvester Turner has put Mother Nature on the hot seat, blaming the prolonged drought for the spike in water leaks.
“Because it is so dry, the ground is shifting, the pipes are shifting,” Turner said.
But KHOU 11 Investigates found something else contributing to the problem.
Ninety-four miles of City of Houston water mains are past their expected lifespan as of June, according to an analysis of Houston Public Works data and industry estimates of lifespans for pipes based on material and geography.
Records show the average age of the outdated pipes is 107 years, and 90% are made of galvanized steel or cast iron. Cast iron has a 110-year useful service life, according to the American Water Works Association, so most of the 1,000 miles of that pipe within the city still has years left. But more than two-thirds of galvanized steel pipes are past their 70-year life expectancy. They’re heavily concentrated inside the 610 loop -- downtown, Montrose, and the East End in city council District I.
“Out of all the 11 council districts we’re the one that has the most mileage of pipes that need to be replaced,” District I Houston City Council Member Robert Gallegos saod. “So, it’s very serious.”
The records also revealed another 48 miles of pipe that the useful years left could not be determined because no installation date was included or the material was unknown or erroneously listed. In some cases, the data showed PVC pipe was installed in 1912, even though the product wasn’t available until the 1950s.
“What I would say is that we have a dataset that does have some errors in it, but that the errors are not widespread and they’re not fatal flaws,” Houston Public Works Director Carol Haddock said. “Do we need to correct it? Absolutely. Are we working our way through it? Absolutely.”
Haddock said in a drought year, the city spends a lot of money putting “Band-Aids on pipes” rather than replacing them, but Houston Public Works has secured local funding for two dozen active waterline projects. Ten of those are in city council districts I, H and C, where the majority of aged-out water mains are located. The city decides which water lines to replace based on several factors, including age, type of material, diameter of pipe, number of breaks and water quality complaints.
Haddock also said the city is looking to tap into federal infrastructure funding and making sure Houston is at the front of the line in securing federal dollars.
As water leaks continue, the city loses out of products that could otherwise be sold. Houston Public Works reported 26.9 billion gallons of unaccounted water from July 2022 to June 2023, which includes water leaks, unauthorized consumption and meter underbilling.
“The value of every drop of water is precious,” Haddock said. “And so the value of any of this water that is not productively used, is what we're focused on stopping.”