Is Texas Tap Water Safe to Drink?
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When you think about Texas, you probably picture a booming job market, plenty of sunshine, and mouthwatering BBQ. But given the state’s crumbling water infrastructure, unpredictable weather, and rapidly growing population, you might have questions about the safety of its tap water.
So, what’s the state of Texas’ tap water in 2023? Can you safely hydrate and whip up your version of the famous Texas chili in the Lone Star State? Stick around as we get to the bottom of these and other crucial questions.
Texas Water Quality: What’s in Texas’ Tap Water?
Tap water quality in Texas often varies from one municipality to the next. Some areas might have safe, potable tap water (at least on paper), but many don’t. In early 2023, a survey of 650 households in low-income Texas communities found that 61% of residents do not think their water is safe to drink. And who can blame them? Texas reportedly has some of the worst tap water in America.
There are over 350 water utilities across the state, each releasing its own water quality report annually. As such, there’s no one-size-fits-all report we can use to describe the water quality in the entire state. But thanks to the brilliant work of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), we have something to work with. After gathering all the data, the EWG discovered that at least two Texas water utilities supplied water with specific contaminants above EPA safe limits. These contaminants include:
Texas’ arsenic contamination problem affects private well users and those relying on municipal water. As per the above EWG report, 49 water utilities across the state have been supplying water with arsenic levels beyond what the EPA considers safe (10 ppb). This is quite scary because arsenic isn’t just your everyday contaminant. It is a known human carcinogen (a fancy way of saying it causes cancer).
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), this metallic element can raise the risk of bladder, lung, and skin cancer and has potential links to other cancers. It also harms the kidneys and other vital organs and can cause skin lesions, neurological problems, cardiovascular issues, etc.
If you’re wondering how arsenic gets into Texas’ drinking water, some municipalities say a portion is due to natural deposits and runoff from pesticides and electronic waste.
Like in many other states, water treatment plants in Texas disinfect water with chlorine, chloramines, and ozone. These chemical disinfectants help kill pathogenic microbes and prevent bacterial infestation. However, they often have a huge tradeoff: they can create disinfection byproducts (DBPs) when they react with organic matter in water.
Common DBPs include bromate, haloacetic acids (HAA5), and total trihalomethanes (TTHMs). Bromate doesn’t pose an immediate threat to Texans, but the latter two are a genuine concern.
Haloacetic acids have been detected above the EPA’s safety limit in 13 Texas water utilities serving over 24,000 people. According to the Iowa Department of Public Health, long-term exposure to these toxic DBPs can damage the liver and kidneys and increase the risk of liver and kidney tumors and bladder cancer. It can also cause injury to the brain, nerves, liver, kidneys, eyes, and reproductive systems over long periods, the National Toxicology Program reports.
Total Trihalomethanes (TTHMs)
TTHMs are a group of cancer-linked contaminants. The most familiar member is chloroform, but the list also includes bromoform, bromodichloromethane, and dibromochloromethane.
According to various sources [1,2,3,4], the effects of TTHM exposure on human health have not been well documented. However, evidence shows that individual chemicals could pose short- and long-term health effects, such as dizziness, fatigue, headache, sleepiness, incoordination, dull chest pain, liver damage, kidney damage, testicle damage, and skin sores.
The EPA’s water safety limit for HAA5 and TTHMs is 60 and 80 ppb, respectively. But in big Texas cities like Austin, you’ll be exposed to HAA5 levels 162 times what the EWG believes is safe and 268 times for TTHMs.
The EWG report also shows that Texas water contains excessive amounts of combined radium (-226 & -228) and uranium. These elements have been found way over EPA limits in over 2,614 utilities serving more than 17 million people. Plus, another 1,250 are doing the same for over 11 million people. It’s no wonder Texas had the most radiated water in the country in 2018.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, an EWG report revealed that a former chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality admitted that the commission ‘lowballed’ radiation scores in drinking water. This reportedly made it seem like places with too much radiation in their drinking water were playing by the rules. In reality, thousands of Texans were unknowingly drinking water with high levels of these chemicals, raising their risk for severe health complications.
The Illinois Department of Public Health reports that folks exposed to high radium levels for a long time could face issues like a weakened immune system, anemia, cataracts, and not-so-strong teeth. There’s also a higher chance of bone, liver, and breast cancer. And if you’re pregnant or ever thinking of being, beware, as radium could harm the developing fetus, with possible growth problems, birth defects, and brain damage.
As for uranium, another cancer-linked radioactive element, breathing in or ingesting high levels can damage your bones and kidneys. Usually, short-term exposure should not negatively impact your health.
Elevated nitrate levels are a growing problem in Texas ground and municipal water. An EWG report shows that over 4,000 water utilities serving more than 27 million people in Texas have higher nitrate levels than the EPA action limit of 10 ppm.
This is incredibly dangerous, especially for infants, as it may lead to blue baby syndrome. Nitrate also has a wide variety of adverse effects in adults, including elevated heart rate, muscle weakness, risk of colorectal cancer, and a heightened risk of tumors and carcinoma in the lungs, bladder, liver, and skin.
Learn more: 5 Reasons to Avoid Nitrates in Drinking Water
What’s Behind Texas’ Water Quality Issues?
An Aging Water Infrastructure
In February 2021, Texas got hit by a severe winter storm—one it hadn’t seen in decades. The storm triggered a chain of power outages and water system failures, leaving about 15 million Texans without electricity and clean water for days and sometimes weeks. It turned out that the problems were related to the state’s aging water system.
Texas drinking water infrastructure barely received a passing grade in a 2021 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers—not a good look for the nation’s second-most-populous state with a reputation for bravado. Over 30 billion gallons of water were lost due to breaks or leaks, and another 100 billion gallons were lost because of faulty water systems and other issues.
The state’s aging water infrastructure and pipes would then cause a series of boil water notices across the state–3,143 in 2022, a big jump from the 1,993 notices they had in 2018, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). These advisories mainly impacted those living in rural areas, although densely populated cities like Houston and Austin were not exempt.
In addition to Texas’ aging infrastructure, droughts are worsening other water infrastructure issues across the state. Under dry and hot drought conditions, the soil expands and contracts, putting more pressure on pipes that are already deteriorating. Plus, as of 2023, the EPA estimates that more than 647,000 water lines in Texas are lead-based. That’s about 7 percent of water pipes, placing the state among those with the most projected lead service lines. If you’ve been reading our blogs, you know lead and other toxic metals can enter the water when plumbing materials that contain them corrode. Moreover, there’s no safe level of lead in water for humans, and it is especially harmful to children.
Industrial waste is another major contributor to Texas’ water woes. A report from Environment America in 2022 found Texas to be the nation’s biggest emitter of toxic substances in its streams, rivers, and lakes. In 2020 alone, the state released nearly 17 million pounds of contaminants, including nitrate, heavy metals, solvents, and other chemicals. It also improperly discharged “persistent bioaccumulative toxins” like mercury and dioxin, which can build up in humans and animals.
Where Does Texas Drinking Water Come From?
Texas is America’s second-largest state, with 254 counties and a population of over 29 million people. But where does such a giant state get water to supply so many people? According to Texas View, Texas gets most of its drinking water from groundwater sources. Nine major and 22 minor underground aquifers supply 56% of the state’s water. About 42% comes from surface water, and 2% from treated reused water. Texas’ surface water sources include 188 major reservoirs, 15 major river basins, and eight coastal basins. Additionally, there are reportedly 6,700 dams and reservoirs in Texas.
How is Tap Water Treated in Texas?
Tap water treatment in Texas follows a similar process to that in many other states. Let’s take a closer look at the steps involved:
Generally, the treatment process starts by adding coagulants like alum and ferric chloride to the raw water. These chemicals carry a positive charge that neutralizes the negative charge of the suspended solids in the water, causing them to coagulate (clump together) in larger groups called flocs.
Once the coagulants have worked their magic and turned the suspended solids into flocs, the municipality uses large mechanical paddles to stir the water in sedimentation basins gently. This makes the flocs larger and denser and, therefore, more likely to settle to the bottom of the basin.
After the source water has gone through coagulation and flocculation, the suspended solids are now large and heavy enough to sink—a process called sedimentation. The clarified water at the top is collected and sent to the next treatment unit. As for the settled flocs, they form a layer of sludge at the bottom of the sedimentation basin and are periodically removed and repurposed as iron-rich soil.
Following sedimentation, the water passes through several filters to remove particles and impurities evading previous treatment processes. Water treatment plants often filter the water through sand, charcoal, and gravel filters that help to eliminate bacteria, microbial contaminants, heavy metals, parasites, viruses, and foul odors.
Some plants use pressurized membrane filtration, which involves forcing the water into a large tube through the pores of the tube walls. The pores act like sieves, rejecting particles and microorganisms larger than the pores. Afterward, the filtered water heads up and out of the tube and into a collection header, pumped, and sent to be disinfected. Many also use granular activated carbon (GAC) filtration to remove some organic compounds that might make the water smell, taste, and appear undesirable.
After the water has been filtered and clarified, water treatment plants disinfect the water through ozonation and chlorination. This helps destroy bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other microbes and prevents infectious diseases from spreading. The North Texas Municipal Watthroer District (NTMWD) says it disinfects water using both methods.
Ozone disinfection inactivates harmful bacteria, including Giardia and Cryptosporidium, and helps kill taste and odor organisms. Since ozone dissipates rapidly, it leaves no harmful residual and is considered the best practice for water treatment. NTMWD reportedly operates “the largest fully ozonated water treatment plant in the state and one of the largest in the country.”
After ozonation, municipalities in the water district add chlorine, a highly effective disinfection method for killing germs. However, its effectiveness fades over time. For this reason, they add ammonia to the chlorinated water, which forms chloramines. Chloramines provide a longer-lasting residual disinfectant than chlorine alone to the water in the transmission and distribution systems. They also extend the life of the chlorine disinfection and allow the water to stay safer for longer.
How to Treat Tap Water in Texas as a Local or Visitor
Many water utility officials in Texas do their best to ensure the best quality water for customers, but is it enough to keep you and your family safe?
As you’ve read in this article, there’s a bunch of contaminants lurking in Texas’ tap water—from arsenic to nitrates. That means there’s no guarantee the water you drink in the state is 100% clean. If you want a constant supply of pristine-quality drinking water, consider purchasing a water test kit and sending a water sample from your tap to a laboratory to be tested. Depending on the results, we suggest installing a water filtration system in your home.
Two common types of water filters are:
- Reverse osmosis (RO) water filters can remove up to 99.9% of all dangerous contaminants from water—arsenic, disinfection byproducts, lead, PFAS, nitrates, you name it.
- Whole house carbon water filters are also highly effective. But unlike undercounter RO systems that filter water at specific points, whole-house systems treat all the water coming into your home. This is an excellent option for those who need access to filtered water in areas other than their kitchen or bathroom without purchasing multiple systems.
Learn more: Reverse Osmosis Water Filtration Explained
Texas ranks among the states with the worst tap water in the United States. Improper industrial discharge, an aging water infrastructure, and extreme weather events mean many utilities are serving tap water with unsafe levels of certain contaminants.
So, what can you do? We recommend that all Texans test their water at least twice yearly and then invest in a reliable water treatment solution if necessary. Undercounter reverse osmosis water filter systems and whole house water filters are two great options, but if you’re unsure where to start or which filter suits your needs and budget, we’ve got your back.
Call us at 800-589-5592, and our friendly experts will provide all the guidance you need to make an informed decision.