An Overview of the Houston, Texas Waterworks System
and its Comparison with the Tokyo System
by Gary Joe Wolff


1. Introduction

     It was recently widely advertised in Tokyo newspapers that water constitutes more than 70% of the human body. And water is also a very essential resource for the support of life in all forms. When the average person turns on the water tap in their home, they probably donít think too much about the years of planning, design, financing, construction, and maintenance necessary to assure this continuous supply of fresh water. It is perhaps human nature to just take this service for granted. The purpose of this paper is to present a brief overview of the waterworks system in my hometown, Houston, Texas, and offer a few comparisons to the Tokyo water supply system, based on observations I have made from residing in Tokyo during the past seven years.

     Founded in 1836, Houston is named after Sam Houston, the first President of the Republic of Texas and general of the Texas army that won independence from Mexico. Houston is well-known worldwide as the home of the NASA Space Center and the worldís first domed sports stadium, the Houston Astrodome, built in 1965.

     Houston is the largest city in Texas and Americaís 4th largest, with an official population of around 1.8 million, while the population in the greater Houston metropolitan area is 4 million. Located on the coastal prairies of Southeast Texas, Houston is situated 80 kilometers from the Gulf of Mexico. The climate is usually moderate with temperatures ranging between 0 and 32 degrees Celsius. Precipitation averages nearly 1270 mm per year.

2. Houstonís Waterworks System

     Houston's water distribution system has 11,584 kilometers of water mains, 50,000 fire hydrants, 10,019 kilometers of wastewater collection lines, and 80,000 manholes. A total of four surface water treatment plants and 203 groundwater wells are a part of this operation, making it one of the most complex water systems in the country. Because Houston is so close to the ocean, excessive use of groundwater has historically caused coastal land subsidence. But through effective planning efforts, that subsidence is now under control, with only 40 percent of Houstonís water supply coming from groundwater wells, down from 55 percent five years ago. And during Fiscal Year 1997, the City of Houston reduced the amount of lost and unaccounted for (unmetered, unbilled) water from 14.3 to 13.9 percent, which is less than the 15% industry average.

     The City of Houston is currently capable of supplying 2.11 million m3/day (557 million U.S. gallons/day (MGD)) of drinking water to its citizens. Houston water customers used an average of 1.35 million m3/day this year. Prior to this year, the previous record for maximum daily pumpage was 1.79 million m3/day on July 30, 1986. But with the ongoing heat wave in Texas this summer, this record has been exceeded 21 times this year, as of July 27, including nine consecutive days from June 18 to June 26 and seven consecutive days from July 10 to July 16. And on June 25, Houston pumped an all-time high record of 1.96 million m3/day.

     The City continues to make aggressive efforts to contain waterworks costs. It has reduced contract security services cost by $600,000 in two years and has reduced workers compensation costs by 57 percent in three years through aggressive safety training and a zero tolerance drug testing program. As a result, no utility rate increases have been required since 1993.

3. Water Quality

     The quality of Houstonís drinking water is constantly monitored -- assuring that it meets both the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Water Act requirements. The Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission found no deficiencies in the City of Houston's main water system during the most recent annual inspection and has awarded Houston a number of certificates recognizing a superior level of compliance for five years with no coliform violations in 14 water systems. At the same time, the City managed to reduce its chemical treatment costs through optimization and innovative use of alternative processes, resulting in a 30% savings to the taxpayers. Water taste/odor/color complaints have been reduced from 5,042 in 1992 to 2,757 in Fiscal Year 1997.

     Quality customer service has been a key source of pride for Houstonís waterworks department for some time. The City has an aggressive campaign to work with customers to resolve any concerns. Maintenance crews respond to customer service requests in 1.5 hours or less. And in the past fiscal year, the customer call-back program continued to maintain an average customer satisfaction level of more than 97 percent.

4. Water Conservation Efforts

     The City of Houston has an active ongoing public relations campaign to promote water conservation efforts in the home, including educational programs for school children. Some of the recommendations include putting a liter-size plastic bottle in the toilet tank to cut down on the water that is actually flushed every day, installing water-saving, low-flow shower heads and flow restrictors for the kitchen and bathroom taps, using the automatic dishwater and washing machine only for full loads, planting drought-resistant trees and plants that require less watering, not running the hose while washing the car, and watering the lawn only when it needs it.

     As for some of the efforts that the City itself is making to conserve water, it is now conducting computer-based irrigation audits of all City turf areas to determine optimum watering times, has contracted with a private company to perform leak detection at the Cityís 45 pools and 25 fountains, and uses treated wastewater to irrigate its golf courses.

5. Innovative Streamlining Strategies

     The City of Houston has implemented a number of programs to help streamline its operations to produce cost savings, including privatization and managed competition. One example was the 1996 contract with a private contractor for the operation and maintenance of the Southeast Water Purification Plant that resulted in a cost savings of $12.7 million over a five-year period. In its efforts to encourage entrepreneurial activities, the City is in the process of developing a plan for a demonstration project to bottle city water. And in accordance with its managed competition concept, it has a mission to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of city operations in order to be more competitive. Ideally, the newly streamlined operations will result in cost savings and increased productivity, while maintaining high service levels.

6. Comparison of the Houston and Tokyo Waterworks Systems

     Upon first moving to Japan, my most interesting and immediate observation was that Japanese toilets have a feature for a "small flush" in addition to the usual "full flush." What a great idea for water conservation efforts! Actually, there are many similarities between the Houston and Tokyo systems -- both have active public relations and water conservation programs, strict water quality standards, historically have encountered water shortages and associated water rationing, have implemented creative uses for recycled treated water, have promoted leakage prevention measures, and have emergency contingency programs to deal with natural disasters.

     The taste of Tokyo water is quite good, and I personally have never experienced any problems with either odor or color, but in both Houston and Tokyo, the sales of bottled water is quite popular.

     Another difference, though, is that because most family homes in Texas have yards, and sometimes pools, there is a greater use of water there for those purposes. As for my mom and dad, their May 1998 water bill, which includes charges for sewer and garbage collection and is based on 9100 gallons (34.4 m3) of water used, cost almost $55 (7810 yen). The same water usage for a residential customer in Tokyo would cost almost double, 14,185 yen ($100). But this is not so surprising, as we already know Tokyo is the most expensive city on the planet.

     And although every public utility must occasionally cut off service in case of non-payment of the monthly bill, in the midst of the current Texas heat wave and the several fatalities that have occurred as a result, many Texas utilities have reported they will not curtail service in the event of non-payment.

     But still one of the most perplexing mysteries is being able to understand the usefulness and wisdom of the age-old Japanese custom of sprinkling water on paved streets on summer mornings.

7. Conclusion

     It appears that both Houston and Tokyo have very excellent waterworks systems and are fully capable of responding to the water consumption needs of their respective very large metropolitan areas.

     As for the City of Houston, with its highly skilled and motivated staff, it is totally committed to excellence in providing reliable, cost-effective service of exceptional quality to its water customers. And as an international leader in technology and with its visionary leadership, Houston will continue to meet regional utility needs well into the 21st century. As part of its Vision 2000 program, which outlines its plans and goals for the future, the City of Houston waterworks department is determined to become the best city utility in the world by year 2000.

(written July 28, 1998)


Note: 1 kilometer = 0.621 miles
           Fahrenheit = (Celsius x 9/5) + 32
           1 m3 = 264.2 U.S. gallons
           1 U.S. dollar = 142 yen (as of July 28, 1998)
           1 millimeter = 0.03937 inches



This paper was published by the Bureau of Waterworks, Tokyo Metropolitan Government, in the Proceedings of Award-Winning Papers from the "International Water Supply Symposium in Tokyo '98" held Nov. 19-20, 1998. The paper was awarded 3rd Prize honors and a certificate of commendation.