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North Texas cities are losing billions of gallons of water to old infrastructure

A water tower against a cloudy sky
Juan Salinas II
/
KERA
A water tower stands near Cockrell Avenue in Dallas on Sept. 25, 2023.

This summer was the third-hottest in Texas’ recorded history. And the extreme heat and dry soil are taking a toll on cities’ aging water infrastructure.

Data from the Texas Water Development Board show some North Texas cities lost billions of gallons of water last year to leaks and main breaks, and city officials say this year could be worse.

“We're losing a lot of water through leaky infrastructure across the state,” said Jennifer Walker, National Wildlife Federation’s Texas Coast and Water Program director.

North Texas lost around 40 billion gallons of water in 2021, the most recent year available according to data from the Texas Water Development Board — that includes reported breaks and leaks as well as unreported losses. And that number has only increased in the past two years.

Cities with 3,300 connections or a financial obligation to the Texas Water Development Board must submit a water loss audit yearly, and all other retail public water suppliers are required to submit an audit to the agency every five years.

Last year, Dallas lost around 15 billion gallons of water: 5 million gallons of which was caused by main breaks and leaks, while the rest went unreported, according to its 2022 water audit report.

Juan Salinas II
/
KERA

Cities won’t submit 2023 water loss audits until May, but Dallas officials are estimating a roughly 4% increase in water loss this year compared to last fiscal year.

The city of Fort Worth lost around 6 billion gallons of water last year. Nearly all of the city's 522 water main breaks come from its old water pipes, according to water utility officials.

And it isn’t a problem only in bigger cities: Plano, for example, lost around 30 million gallons of water to leaks and breaks in 2022, according to the city; so far this year, it has lost roughly 47 million gallons. The city’s water department said the increase is because of breaks in larger water lines.

“The number of main breaks is pretty close to last year, but the quantity of water lost is already higher,” Abby Owens with the Plano Public Works Department said in an email. Still, she noted, “Although these might sound like a lot of water, water loss due to leaks in 2022 was less than 0.2% of the total water we purchased from North Texas Municipal Water Department.”

All the lost water is costing the cities millions — Dallas has lost around $20 million while Fort Worth lost $5.8 million in 2022. North Texas as a whole lost $76 million in 2021, according to the Texas Water Development Board.

Fort Worth and Dallas both blame this summer’s extreme heat as the main reason for the water main breaks, which often occur because the soil around lines dries up, causing them to move around.

Old water infrastructure is at fault too, said John McCaskill, a University of Texas at Dallas political science professor.

“It's really easy to ignore because it's underground," McCaskill said, "and you don't notice it until you have this sudden geyser showing up someplace you don't want it to."

Upgrading any city's infrastructure is a costly process because of inflation and the rising cost of construction, McCaskill said.

Fort Worth has about 800 miles of aging water pipes in its 3,900-mile water pipe system. According to city officials, it tries to replace 20 miles of old water pipes yearly — the city expects to meet the goal this year.

Water utility officials said that is as much as the department can afford to replace. Their repairs are funded through residents’ water and sewer fees.

“We have to be mindful of ratepayers,” said Mary Gugliuzza, Fort Worth water utility spokesperson.

While the City of Fort Worth does get some funding from the state for water infrastructure projects, Gugliuzza said more state funding would be helpful.

Proposition 6

This fall, voters will decide if the state should create a new fund specifically for water infrastructure projects. The funds, overseen by the Texas Water Development Board, would be used to support projects to upgrade water infrastructure for rural areas, replace old pipes, secure more water sources and address water loss.

Even if the amendment passes, the $1 billion commitment from the state isn’t enough to address all issues with Texas water infrastructure, said Jennifer Walker with the National Wildlife Federation.

“It's a drop in the bucket,” Walker said. The need is big, but every investment we make is a real benefit to Texas utilities.”

Juan Salinas II is a KERA news intern. Got a tip? Email Juan at jsalinas@kera.org. You can follow Juan on Twitter @4nsmiley.

Corrected: October 3, 2023 at 12:42 PM CDT
A previous version of this story mistakenly stated all cities have to submit a water audit annually. Only certain cities do; others submit one every five years.
Juan Salinas II is a KERA news intern. He previously worked at the Fort Worth Report as a reporting fellow. He is a Tarrant County College transfer student who is currently studying journalism at the University of Texas at Arlington. He was born and raised in the North Side of Fort Worth. He hopes for an opportunity to do meaningful news coverage during his time at KERA.