UH Professor Martin Melosi Examines Water History in Houston and the U.S.

Urban Environmental Pioneer Transformed Field by Looking Beyond Wilderness to Cities

In the 1970s, when environmental issues focused on nature and the wilderness, Martin Melosi, Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Professor of History and director of the Center for Public History, University of Houston, felt cities were being left out of the environmental discourse.


“Melosi started working in the field of environmental history in the 1970s. He is one of the earliest people in the area of urban environmental history,” said Joseph A. Pratt, Cullen Professor of History and Business, UH.  “There are two people really considered the ‘fathers’ in that subfield, Martin Melosi and Joel Tarr."

Melosi adopted an interdisciplinary approach that incorporated work from geographers, city planners and other social scientists. He challenged the standard discourse in the young field of environmental history that frequently focused on wilderness or agriculture and argued that cities should be viewed as ecosystems with a physical, biological and social structure.

“Martin Melosi has been a pioneer scholar in the fields of environmental and energy history and especially in the history of the urban environment,” said Joel A. Tarr, Richard S. Caliguiri University Professor of History and Policy, Carnegie Mellon University. “He has an uncanny instinct to focus on historical issues that have great contemporary significance, as is reflected in his most recent book, ‘Precious Commodity: Providing Water for America’s Cities.’ Through his research and writing, Melosi has provided us with insight into some of the most pressing issues facing cities today and laid out a major path for graduate students and environmental history and studies to follow.” 

“Precious Commodity: Providing Water for America’s Cities,” is a consolidation of essays on water use and management based on 40 years of extensive research into contemporary periodicals, government reports, city publications, and the proceedings of several engineering and public health associations. Melosi provides a historical background on construction, administration, and adaptability of water supply and wastewater systems in urban America. He cites budgetary constraints and the deterioration of existing water infrastructures as factors leading many municipalities to seriously consider the privatization of their water supply.


“There are concerns for fresh water in the United States as demand for water has tripled and the population doubled.  Fresh water is a finite resource with demand on the rise and higher prices to follow,” said Melosi. “There is enough freshwater on the planet for six billion people, but it is distributed unevenly and too much of it is wasted, polluted and unsustainably managed. Every year millions of people, most of them children, die from diseases associated with inadequate water supply, sanitation and hygiene. According to the United Nations, water scarcity affects approximately 1.2 billion people in the world, and it estimates another 1.6 billion people face an economic water shortage where countries lack the necessary infrastructure to take water from rivers and aquifers.” 

In “Precious Commodity,” Melosi explores the role of government in management, development and legal jurisdiction over America’s rivers and waterways for hydroelectric power, flood control, irrigation, and transportation access. Looking to the future, Melosi compares costs and benefits of public versus private water supply, examining the global movement toward privatization.

“Martin Melosi is renowned for his environmental histories of America’s urban landscapes. In ‘Precious Commodity,’ he draws our attention to the most basic of human needs – fresh water – providing clear-eyed assessments of how society has managed this vital resource in the past,” said Jeffrey K. Stine, curator for environmental history at the Smithsonian Institution,  National Museum of American History. “With domestic and international conflicts over water destined to intensify during the 21st century, Melosi’s historical insights will help all of us argue in a more informed manner about our collective future.”

Specifically related to Houston, Melosi dedicates a chapter to the historical significance of Buffalo Bayou, a water artery running through the city of Houston, designated as the National Highway of the Republic in 1840, where early settlement occurred and became an essential means of transport and commerce, as well as a recreational focal point. Another chapter addresses Houston’s public sinks, noting the city is unique in that private businesses rely so much on public systems in a place that prides itself on individual initiative.

“Growth in Houston has been a relentless adversary in providing adequate sanitary services,” said Melosi. “Developing an adequate water supply for Houston meant seeking sources of water many miles from the urban core and creating delivery systems that impinged on areas outside of Houston.

“It isn’t so much a crisis in supply, Melosi added, it’s a crisis of location and allocation. These are really questions of geography, location and circumstance, as much as they are the question of abundance. You can’t divide the total amount of fresh water into pieces allocated according to population size. It just doesn’t work that way. So these questions of how do we get access, what is fair, what isn’t fair, become ultimately cultural and ethical questions. And I think that’s what shows up in a lot of historical works. You see the intertwining of the cultural, political, the economic, the environmental in all of these processes.”   

Melosi is the author and editor of 18 books and more than 85 articles, including “Precious Commodity: Providing Water for America’s Cities”; the award-winning “The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present”; with UH colleague Joseph A. Pratt “Energy Metropolis: An Environmental History of Houston and the Gulf Coast”; “Garbage in the Cities: Refuse, Reform and the Environment, 1880-1980”; “Effluent America: Cities, Industries, Energy and the Environment,” and the upcoming book “Atomic Age America and The World.” His next project is “On an Island Not too Far: Fresh Kills and Staten Island.”   He earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Texas and a B.A. and M.A. in history from the University of Montana. In 2009, Melosi received the Distinguished Service Award from the American Society for Environmental History. In 2005, he received the Esther Farfel Award, the highest honor accorded to a University of Houston faculty member.