Houston Water Quality: Yesterday
Early settlers of Houston relied on a variety of water sources including “pure, cold, and wholesome water” from Beauchamp Springs, which was delivered to residents for 75 cents per 30 gallons; cisterns to catch rain water for household use; shallow wells; or bayou water stored in barrels. However, as the city grew these water sources could not keep up with demand. After the City Market Fire of 1878, Houston City Council sought new water sources and built a water works facility that pumped water from the Buffalo Bayou. But the population continued to burgeon, and the new water works couldn’t provide adequate water pressure to serve the city’s widening footprint. City planners found a source of seemingly unlimited pure water only 180 feet underneath Houston in 1887 when a resident drilled an artesian well and discovered the third largest underground reservoir in the U.S.
Even so, Houston grew so rapidly in the first half of the twentieth century that in emergency situations, Buffalo Bayou water had to be pumped through the mains and mingled with the groundwater to provide enough water pressure to fight fires. Residents began to suspect that Buffalo Bayou water was secretly being used to supplement the drinking water supply, calling their tap water “tar water.” It wasn’t until 1906 when the City of Houston began to restore resident’s confidence in their water supplies, by drilling new wells instead of pumping Buffalo Bayou water.
After WWII, Houston city officials began to develop longer-range water solutions from surface water sources. In 1953, City engineers constructed a dam across the San Jacinto River to create Lake Houston. The City of Houston also holds a percentage of the water rights to Lake Livingston (constructed in 1969) and Lake Conroe (constructed in 1973).