What’s Wrong with City of Houston Water?

 dirty tap water, whats in your tap water

If you recently experienced one of Houston’s 90 plus degree summer days, and decided to enjoy a nice tall glass of Houston’s finest tap water on ice, only to discover that it tasted and smelled like dirt… You are not alone! Many people living in and around the Houston area, have noticed their tap water tasting and smelling a bit off lately.

Jennifer Elms, EHRA Engineering, Project Manager, Water and Wastewater Facilities

Jennifer Elms, P.E.

The City of Houston’s 311 service request line has been flooded with complaints about the taste and odor of the water over the last couple of weeks.

We recently spoke with Jennifer Elms, P.E. Project Manager from EHRA Engineering’s Water and Wastewater Facilities department and Texas AWWA officer, to get her take on the situation:


Is the City of Houston tap water safe to drink?
Jennifer Elms, P.E.: Yes, tap water is always safe to drink. Many people stake their professional reputations on that fact. These people are engineers, managers, lab technicians, etc. Most all of us have to be certified in some fashion (PE for engineers, Operator license for operator, lab certifications, etc). It may not always smell the best and it may not taste the best but it is safe.

It has been reported that an algae bloom in the water source is responsible for the bad taste and smell. What caused the off smelling / tasting water?
Jennifer Elms, P.E.: Algae bloom is an easy way to explain to the general public. Taste and odor issues with drinking water stem from organics in the source water, yes algae is an organic but there are other organics that may be present causing this problem (manganese, iron, etc. and other things like decaying leaf litter). Surface water sources are much more susceptible to taste and odor issues than groundwater, however groundwater can experience similar issues. Often times the cause of taste and odor is when the lake “turns over”. When the lake “turns over” the decaying organics at the bottom of the lake are disturbed dispersing the organics throughout the lake and depending on where the lake’s intake is located, this can add to taste and odor issues.

Is the City of Houston working on fixing the issue?
Jennifer Elms, P.E.: The design of the water treatment plants included dealing with taste and odor. The use of an activated carbon filter can address this, however – taste and odor are subjective. Treatment levels have to be weighed against cost effectiveness because for surface waters you will never totally remove taste and odor.

Is there anything that can be done to fix the issue?
Jennifer Elms, P.E.: It will have to play out.

How long will it take before the issue is corrected?
Jennifer Elms, P.E.: It really just depends on weather and demand.

If the cause is actually an algae bloom, what caused it?
Jennifer Elms, P.E.: Excessive nitrates and sulfates added to the system.. With all the rain we have been having and in the spring people fertilize their yards – it rains – it runs off – gotta go somewhere.

Has Houston had issues with algae blooms affecting the water supply before?
Jennifer Elms, P.E.: Yes.

Can blooms like this be prevented in the future?
Jennifer Elms, P.E.: No.

Where are the current water sources located?
Jennifer Elms, P.E.: The City of Houston gets water supply from two sources; Lake Houston and groundwater wells.

Is the algae bloom an issue in just one source? Or all of them?
Jennifer Elms, P.E.: Algae are only issues with surface water, but groundwater can have issues also.


Written By: Jim Russ
Find Jim on Google+
Jim Russ is Principal and Executive Vice President of EHRA Engineering


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