Water, water, everywhere!

December 30, 2011

When I travel I like to read the local newspaper.  Now, being in Houston, the local paper of choice is the Houston Chronicle.  According to its page in Wikipedia (Houston Chronicle), it enjoys the ninth largest circulation of any newspaper in the United States and managed the advent of the internet very well as their website receives over 75-millon views per month.  It is an article in today’s edition (Horswell) that brings something to mind.

In her article titled City Lost Millions to Water Leak, Cindy Horswell touches on many key factors regarding wasting a natural resource, in this case – water.  She rightly points out the cost of pumping, treating and dispersing water, only to have it wasted by a leaky supply system.  Such problems in a water system incur cost while failing to deliver revenue to offset them.  It is not a small amount of water, the article cites the city’s own data showing over 18-billion, yes that’s billion with a “b,” gallons of water lost this year.  To put that into some sort of perspective, that is around 900,000 average-sized swimming pools worth of water.

The article brings a specific problem into focus; the water system’s infrastructure is in need of major repairs.   Cost is always an issue but the story is correct to point out that past neglect leaves Houston with a much larger problem today.  If taken seriously, the water system can be fixed.   Moreover, providing funds for ongoing maintenance and repair needs to be a constant priority to prevent a second round of staggering leaks and the cost to return the system to a manageable state.  900,000 swimming pools of waste is simply unacceptable but as bad as that is, there is another problem brewing, one the city council cannot fix – waste by users.

Waste in home and commercial use has two basic forms, wasteful use of water and leaks. Wasteful use refers to things like brushing your teeth with the water running, wasting about 1.3 gallons with each brushing.  Much like the issues Houston now faces, leaks are primarily caused by not properly maintaining infrastructure.  Home and businesses owners fail to make needed repairs and face the same sort of increased repair costs in the long run.

While the amount of water wasted per home or business might be small, the overall waste for all homes and businesses is staggering.  Take the brushing example; let’s assume 40% of Houstonians leave the water running while brushing.  For the larger Houston–Sugar Land–Baytown metropolitan area and its 6-million people means that 40% would waste 3,120,000 gallons per day or 1,138,800,000 per year.  Just from something simple like brushing!

As for leaks, a 2 drip per minute leak on a single faucet wastes 69 gallons per year.  If we assume 25% of homes in the Houston area have at least one faucet that leaks, 27,577,540.5 gallons wasted annually. That’s 27-million gallons wasted over silly, simple to fix, faucet leaks.

As bad as faucet leaks are, they pale when compared to a leaky toilet.  Most toilet leaks are caused by worn-out flapper vales.  This is the big rubber flap at the bottom of the tank.  A leaky toilet wastes around 200 gallons per day.  If 10% of Houston area homes have leaking toilets, that adds up to 31,973,960 gallons per day or 11,670,495,400 gallons per year.

Of course, these are but a few of the more obvious examples of waste and leaks and only takes the 1,598,698 homes and apartments in Harris County  (U.S. Census Bureau) into account.  Commercial businesses most likely waste much more.  The point is waste is not limited to the supply system.  Business and individuals collectively have just as large a role to play in water conservation.

Many arguments are made for and against particular ways to conserve water.  Avoiding that argument, here is something we all can agree on – cost.  Using the numbers calculated above and the price per 1,000 gallons used in the newspaper article ($2.81), Houstonians spent just over $36-millon this year in wasted water; a whopping 12.8-billion gallons.  Again, that is billion with a “b.”  Add that up with waste at the water system level and Greater Houston wasted at least 30-billions gallons of water in 2011. Using the pool example, that is 1.5-million pools worth of water.

Houston faces substantial cost to repair its water supply system and it must be done.  Still, that does not end the problem as waste at the system level is only part of the problem.  There is much lower hanging fruit to be had for all of us at the individual and corporate levels saving as much, if not more water.  As the Chronicle’s article concludes:  “Our water is precious and growing scarce.  It’s not that limitless supply that we used to think.”


Horswell, Cindy. “City lost millions to water leaks.” Houston Chronicle 30 12 2011: A1, A15.

Houston Chronicle. “Houston Chronicle.” 29 12 2011. Wikipedia. 29 12 2011 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Houston_Chronicle&gt;.

U.S. Census Bureau. State & County QuickFacts, Harris County Texas. 2010. 30 12 2011 <http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/48/48201.html&gt;.



  1. Very enlightening…and depressing. Our mentality in America is so wasteful. On a recent trip my parents made to Australia, a very dry country in the midst of a long and critical drought, they witnessed firsthand what we could be facing in America in the near future…and practices we would do well to emulate. No water is wasted. Showers are VERY short (like 5 minutes or less) Swimming pools are a luxury. Water is saved from showers or baths and carried out in buckets to water the plants or wash clothes. There is no room for waste like we are guilty of here in America.

    • Yes, it seems we will not learn to save until it is forced upon us by necessity. That is the true shame of it, we have time to turn it around but seem unwilling to change.

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