Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Dallas Wastewater Keeps Trinity Flowing, Houston Drinking

Dave Fehling/StateImpact Texas

FM 3278 crosses the Trinity River just downstream from the Lake Livingston Dam

Once called the “River of Death” because it was so polluted with sewage and waste from slaughterhouses, the Trinity River has defied the great drought and helped maintain one of Houston’s critical supplies of water. And much of the credit goes to what a century ago made the river so polluted: the wastewater from Dallas-Fort Worth.

The Trinity flows past Dallas and goes south 200 miles to Lake Livingston. Even after the long summer of record drought and heat,

Map courtesy TRA

Click on the image above to trace the Trinity River Basin's route.

thousands of gallons of water still cascade every second down the lake’s spillway. From there, the flow again takes the form of a river and 80 miles later, the Trinity ends at Trinity Bay on the Gulf of Mexico.

At the Lake Livingston spillway, all that water creates a steady, low roar.

Dave Fehilng/StateImpact Texas

The waters of the Trinity River escaping Lake Livingston Dam

“It’s the roar of many showers and toilets using water in the Dallas-Fort Worth area,” said a smiling Jim Lester, a lead environmental scientist with the Houston Advanced Research Center in The Woodlands.

It has long been a joke to those who know where Houston gets it’s water: take a drink from a tap in Houston and say ‘thank you’ to your friends in Dallas for flushing their toilets and doing all the other things that create a city’s wastewater.

In fact, without the Dallas-Fort Worth wastewater, the drought may have nearly dried up the Trinity. Decades ago, that happened. But now, the Metroplex sends so much wastewater down the Trinity, even in the driest year in Texas, the river continues to flow. Which means the wastewater is far more concentrated.

The Trinity River Authority (TRA) said in a normal year, just one-eighth of the flow as it reaches Lake Livingston is Dallas-Fort Worth wastewater. But this summer, that wastewater accounted for one-half the flow.

Dave Fehling/StateImpact Texas

Scientists Stephanie Glenn (left) and Lisa Gonzalez at the Houston Advanced Research Center

“Water quality is affected by drought,” said Stephanie Glenn, a water quality scientist at the Houston Advanced Research Center.

Contaminants are at concentrated levels in droughts because of the lack of rainwater to dilute them. But it’s a concern Glenn said more for the fish than humans.

“That’s important for aquatic life. It’s not necessarily for drinking water,” said Glenn. She said the good news for both is that the waste water treatment plants in Dallas are highly effective.

The river authority uses a series of treatments to clean the waste water before it’s released to flow down the Trinity. They include screens, aeration, filters made of sand and cloth, and chlorine (which is then removed through dechlorination).

Trinity River Authority

Trinity River Authority waste water treatment facility in Dallas

“[The] pathogens, the bacteria, the viruses, these are removed very, very efficiently through the normal wastewater treatment process. So what’s coming out of those [treatment plant] discharges…really is quite clear,” said Glenn Clingenpeel, the TRA’s senior environmental manager.

The Houston Public Works and Engineering Department said it has made no changes in what it does to make the Trinity River water drinkable.

“The treated water has met all Federal and State standards during the drought, and no significant changes were observed in constituent levels,” department spokesperson Alvin Wright said in an email to StateImpact Texas.

Dave Fehling/StateImpact Texas

Houston purifies the water it pumps from the Trinity and San Jacinto rivers

Houston gets roughly a third of its water from the Trinity, pumping water from the river near Dayton and sending it through canals to a purification plant in east Houston. But as demand grows, Houston has plans to build a second canal known as the Luce Bayou Project. It will tap the Trinity at a point 10 miles north of Dayton, diverting more river water westward over to Lake Houston.(The other two-thirds of Houston’s water comes from Lake Houston which is part of the San Jacinto River watershed and from underground aquifers.).

No one knows when the drought will end, but with lower temperatures and some decent rain storms, there has been some re-filling of the depleted Lake Livingston. This summer it had dropped some four feet. It has now regained one foot of that level, thanks also to all that wastewater from Dallas-Fort Worth.



  • And millions of people literally ingest this stuff also laced with deadly chemicals like chloromate and flouride?! 


    • Mitchellhorton

      Can’t be that deadly if millions do it every day for decades. 

      Natural water in many climates is far more dangerous to drink than the wastewater Dallas is pumping into the river. 

    • Matt

      It’s a “Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.” !!!

      • bzbillzack1

        I see you remember Sterling Hayden’s greatest and probably shortest roles. I never cared much for Hayden in movies except “Strangelove” but this one role was made only for him! How great he was and everyone else in the movie! . This is one of the top 10 movies of all time!

    • Allenbosox

      Where would you suggest that those millions of people get their potable water from?  There are still many issues to deal with, but the gist of the story is on how far we (I mean ‘we’ quite literally, as I work for Dallas Water Utilities) have come.  Yes, we use chlorine to kill pathogens, but research is ongoing to find a better way.  Chlorine is a very dangerous chemical, and while it may kill dysentery it has no effect on ‘new’ pollutants such as pharmaceuticals.  Hydroflouric Acid is also constantly evaluated, as there is beginning to emerge questions as to whether it should be added to drinking water supplies. 

      • Taylord

        The bulk of the chlorine is removed prior to discharge. Alot of the facilities that are discharging waste water are now using UV for disinfection.

    • Then I suggest you fill a tub full of rubbing alcohol and submerse yourself in it and tie a medical grade bag around your head so you don’t have to deal with it.  Me… I’m just gonna drink the freakin water and move on.  Look, there’s something bad in everything.

    • Guest

      You’re missing the obvious answer: Beer. It got us through the dark ages. It’ll get us through this.

  • Then I suggest you fill a tub full of rubbing alcohol and submerse yourself in it and tie a medical grade bag around your head so you don’t have to deal with it.  Me… I’m just gonna drink the freakin water and move on.  Look, there’s something bad in everything.

  • Sekandari

    I just moved TO Houston FROM Dallas and I had no idea! I’ve been using Brita filtered water, but now I’ll have to budget for bottled water for the next 4 years :(

    • Jryan

      Uh, where do you think most bottled water comes from???  It’s bottled tap water.  Plastic water bottles also allow other chemicals like BPA to leach into the water.  Plastic water bottles also create millions of tons of waste that never go away.  Do yourself a favor.  Keep using the Brita water filter and carry your own stainless steel or glass refillable water bottle.  Better for you, better for the planet.

  • Sis

    no wonder the water in Houston tastes like pool water!…. there is so much chlorine in it you can’t help but taste it…. and after a shower, my skin smells like I just got out of the pool.  However, if your drinking wastewater, it likely requires a lot of chlorine.  yuck.  

    • Taylord

      The cities pick up the water from a source. Retreat it. Then place it in the collection system. It is the city who is adding the chlorine. CL2 will dissipate, so the further you live from the treatment plant the lower the residual. The closer you live the higher.

      • Allenbosox

         This is true to a degree.  Cities must monitor the chlorine residual in the distribution system.  If it falls below a predetermined minimum (0.5 mg/l, I think, not certain) then they can add more at those points.  This is usually in the form of Sodium Hypochlorite, as it is safer to use than chlorine gas. 
        When you think about it, it’s rather ironic that we add toxic chemicals to water to make it safe to drink. 

  • 1234

    You’re missing the obvious answer: Beer. It got us through the dark ages. It’ll get us through this. 

  • They are doing what they have to do to furnish water for the masses. Unfortunately the concerns are real (they won’t necessarily kill you right out, but there are lots of other diseases and problems associated with these chemicals). Most concerns can be solved with a whole-house water softener/filtration system and/or a reverse osmosis filter in the kitchen. Expensive yes, but you can’t put a price on safe/clean water.

  • Vogelc

    How many of you want the Republicans to defund and abolish the EPA now that you know where Houston gets its water?

    • PEAVYS


      • M. Kelly

        Just curious how you think the EPA will enslave us.  

      • wessexmom

        No, ignorant people like you will KILL us all!

  • Please, God, MAKE IT RAIN!  o.0

    • bzbillzack1

      We got record rainfall for the month of May, 2015, in the Dallas Ft. Worth area, so this rain should fill up Lake Livingston at Houston! We got over 20 inches at Flower Mound, Tx.!

      It took God 3 years to answer your prayer! Better late than never! Now we’re saying, “Please, God, MAKE IT STOP RAINING!

  • Jjmills19

    The media tries to make news out of anything don’t they?  There is nothing wrong with the drinking water in Houston.  The standard for bottled water is based on 1960 (the year) standards of purification.  The drinking water from the tap is based on 2011 purification standards.  Sounds to me like the water industry is trying to scare people into buying bottled water instead of drinking what is on tap.

  • Scott Fletcher

    All of the chlorine is removed before discharge using sulfur dioxide which is neutralized in the process. The wastewater Dallas discharges is amazingly clean. I worked there for 25 years.

  • kaitlyn


  • butt


  • butt


  • butt

    that water taste like butt

About StateImpact

StateImpact seeks to inform and engage local communities with broadcast and online news focused on how state government decisions affect your lives.
Learn More »