KPRC 2 investigates outdated water maps costing city of Houston millions

Wrong maps mean crews often can’t find the pipes to fix a leak

HOUSTON – Water leaks and breaks can send water gushing into roadways and gutters. We’ve all seen it around Houston. As we continue our ‘DRAINED’ KPRC 2 Investigation into the Houston Water Department, we learned one reason it often takes so long to get those water breaks fixed is because crews can’t find the pipes and cut-off valves they need to turn off the water. Investigator Amy Davis learned the city of Houston doesn’t have an updated field maps of its water pipes and infrastructure. The issue is costing all of us millions of dollars indirectly- in higher rates on our water bills.

Hundreds of reported water leaks daily

The city is now averaging more than 500 water leaks a day. Water pipes are cracking and breaking. While citizens report the gushing water and crews rush to repair the leaks, crews don’t know where to start.

“They came out and they didn’t know where our lines were. They just kind of scratched their head and they didn’t know what to do,” said Tanglewood resident Laura Beavers.

Outdated water pipe maps mean city crews often can't fix water leaks in timely manner. (Copyright 2023 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

Beavers said a major leak in her townhome community near Tanglewood flowed for weeks, and it continued well after residents reported it to 311. The water ran not because the city didn’t have the crews to respond, but because when they showed up, they didn’t know where to dig. She explained that a Public Works employee told her the maps for her community’s water lines and pipes do not exist.

“They said they lost them maybe in a hurricane. I don’t know if that’s right,” said Beavers.

During a city Council meeting in November, Houston City Councilmember Robert Gallegos said Public Works crews at the scene of a water main break on Wayside near 45 told him the same thing.

At the time Gallegos said, ‘He informed me, ‘Councilmember, we could have had this fixed within two hours. Unfortunately, the problem is with this old infrastructure, the maps are outdated.’ They were trying to find out where that cutoff valve was.”

Outdated water pipe maps mean city crews often can't fix water leaks in timely manner. (Copyright 2023 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

Lost pipes and cut-off valves?

Nearly three months after Gallegos reported the problem at a City Council meeting in November, we asked him for more information.

“They were talking about, you know, having to figure this out several blocks where the main cut-off was,” Gallegos said.

Amy asked, “Drive around?”

Gallegos replied, “Right, driving around, trying to figure it out because the map they had just didn’t make any sense to them.”

It didn’t make any sense to Jeff Balke or his neighbors who live northwest of the councilmember’s district.

Balke and other citizens reported a leak off Pinemont and Vista Way some 400 times to 311 beginning in early December.

Outdated water pipe maps mean city crews often can't fix water leaks in timely manner. (Copyright 2023 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

“It’s definitely a problem just from a wasting water standpoint,” he said.

City crews came out, put down cones and left, leaving the leak gushing for several more weeks.

Homeowners sent KPRC 2 pictures of a utility pole leaning at the site of the leak in January, seemingly from the saturated soil.

Who is paying for the water from all of the water main breaks?

Outdated water pipe maps mean city crews often can't fix water leaks in timely manner. (Copyright 2023 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

KPRC 2 Investigates once again interviewed Houston Public Works Director Carol Haddock to ask about the water pipes maps and more.

Amy asked her, “Who is paying for all that lost water?”

“It’s certainly not billed to the rate payers because they’re only billed what comes through the meter,” Haddock told her.

Beavers doesn’t buy the explanation.

“It has to come from somewhere. If they’re losing that much water- then somebody has to pay that,” he said.

The Texas Water Development Board says lost water in Houston cost the city more than $24 million in 2021.

How long does it take to repair a water leak in Houston?

The response times to fix water leaks in Houston are drastically slowing.

Response times to fix water leaks in Houston have slowed drastically over the years. (Copyright 2023 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

“If it’s a water leak on a pipe that’s serving a hospital, serving a nursing home, serving a school, you know, those things we put to the front line to make sure continuing service,” Haddock explains. “And if it’s a small leak that’s not impacting pressures, it may run longer, and we don’t want that. Let me be clear. We don’t want the water to be running down the street.”

We tried to ask Haddock about the lost or outdated water pipe maps in this interview. But, her communications liaison said our time was up.

Councilmember Gallegos told us he would ask those questions we couldn’t.

'DRAINED' KPRC 2 Investigation looks into issues customers are having with City of Houston water bills. (Copyright 2023 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

“They know it’s a problem and I don’t think they know how to fix it,” Beavers adds.

Following our interview with Public Works Director Carol Haddock, a city spokesperson emailed us this statement: “There are more than 7,000 miles of water lines throughout Houston. There are more than 168,000 valves to help operate this system and isolate certain areas. While the electronic maps do show the location of valves, the realities in the field are that the locations shown on the maps are not exact, may have been altered by a previous repair, can be obscured by landscaping, and in some cases have even been paved over.”

At the end of last year, the City of Houston hired four contractors to help Public Works crews repair all the breaks. There is no word what, or if anything the department is doing to update its infrastructure maps to help improve repair times in the future that would save the city’s water supply and money.

Do you have an issue with your water bill?

After our week-long ‘DRAINED’ series in November, we were inundated with emails and requests for help from customers being squeezed for money they don’t owe. Since November, we have recovered some $22,000 for nearly a dozen customers. That’s about $2,000 per household!

Let us know if you need help with your water bill and see more on our ‘DRAINED’ Investigation here.

About the Authors:

Passionate consumer advocate, mom of 3, addicted to coffee, hairspray and pastries.

Award-winning TV producer and content creator. My goal as a journalist is to help people. Faith and family motivate me. Running keeps me sane.