City of Magnolia, Montgomery County officials discuss groundwater regulations

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Conroe Mayor Webb Melder addresses the crowd at the Sept. 8 Magnolia town hall meeting.

Conroe Mayor Webb Melder addresses the crowd at the Sept. 8 Magnolia town hall meeting. (via Liza Winkler/Community Impact Newspaper)

Overflowing into the lobby, residents and public officials packed the Magnolia council chambers Sept. 8 for a town hall meeting to discuss the regulation of groundwater in Montgomery County by the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District.

Several local officials including Magnolia Mayor Todd Kana, Conroe Mayor Webb Melder and water provider Quadvest President Simon Sequeira answered questions from residents regarding concerns about rising water bill rates and private well regulations.

Other officials in attendance who spoke during the meeting include San Jacinto River Authority spokesperson Ronda Trow, LSGCD General Manager Kathy Turner Jones and Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal.

“If you look at [groundwater]well [levels]they’re dropping, so there’s some need for conservation,” Doyal said. “The question is how much can we take out before it becomes unreachable or economically impossible for them to bring water up. There’s a balance between what we’re hearing and what [the LSGCD]wants to do.”

Increasing fees

The SJRA Groundwater Reduction Plan uses GRP fees to fund the cost of the $500 million pipeline project to deliver surface water from Lake Conroe to The Woodlands, the cities of Oak Ridge North and Conroe and local municipal utility districts. Those GRP fees are paid for by residents through their monthly water bills and are expected to continue to rise annually through 2024, according to the SJRA.

As of Sept. 1, the SJRA GRP increased its groundwater pumpage fee from $2.25 to $2.32 per 1,000 gallons. The city of Magnolia, Quadvest, T&W Water Service and several other Montgomery County water providers are participants in the SJRA’s GRP, Kana said.

Each water provider is permitted to tack on additional cents to the SJRA fee to provide for water line breaks, flushes and treatment, Magnolia City Administrator Paul Mendes said. Water users in the city of Magnolia pay an additional $0.25, which brings its SJRA GRP fee to $2.57 per 1,000 gallons, he said.

“Today, we’re about $80,000 in the hole from what we’ve collected to what we have to pay the [San Jacinto River Authority]. I think this is the first time that we are actually not making money on the water system because of these additional fees.”

—Magnolia City Administrator Paul Mendes

“Right now we’ve collected $229,000 [in total water fees this year], and we’ve sent the SJRA $309,000, so we are falling behind,” Mendes said. “Today, we’re about $80,000 in the hole from what we’ve collected to what we have to pay the SJRA. I think this is the first time that we are actually not making money on the water system because of these additional fees.”

While the city of Magnolia does not receive surface water, it pays into the SJRA GRP to comply with LSGCD mandates.

“Paying $2.32 per 1,000 gallons to pump, even though [Magnolia is not expected to] ever drink [the surface water], is still cheaper than if the city of Magnolia sold enough bonds to dig a lake and a treatment plant for our 2,000 people,” Kana said.

With those entities converting to surface water, the city of Magnolia and other smaller users will continue using groundwater and help meet the LSGCD’s 2008 mandate to reduce groundwater use countywide by 30 percent by 2016, Kana said.

Effect on residents

Susan Johnson, Magnolia area resident in the Thousand Oaks subdivision, said she and her neighbors are served by a neighborhood well through water provider T&W Water Service and also pay the SJRA GRP fee in their monthly water bills. As of Sept. 1, T&W Water Service President Ron Payne said the company’s pass-through SJRA GRP fee decreased $0.15 from last year to $2.50 per 1,000 gallons.

During the month of August, Johnson said her water bill increased from a little under $500 to $1,100 after T&W Water Service indicated on her bill that 189,000 gallons were used at her property, Johnson said. Johnson said she hired a company and a plumber this month to check for leak detection on her property only to be told there are no leaks. Several of her other neighbors were in attendance at the meeting and said they saw their bills skyrocket to anywhere between $700 to $1,100 in August.

Payne said the substantial increase in the residents’ water bills is largely due to individual increases in water usage during the summer months with yard irrigation and pools. Payne said he encourages residents to frequently check their meters to gauge the amount of water being used.

“I can tell you on the bills that went out in July for that subdivision, we pumped 4.3 million gallons,” Payne said. “On the one for August that everybody is complaining about, we pumped 12.9 million gallons, which is three times the amount.”

Other residents expressed concerns over not wanting to pay the SJRA GRP groundwater use fee entirely, since the Magnolia area is not in initial plans to receive surface water from the SJRA by 2024.

Scott Sustman, president of the Lake Conroe Communities Network, encouraged residents who have expressed concerns regarding water regulations to sign a petition on the network’s website that will be presented to the LSGCD, SJRA, Commissioners Court and other elected officials.

“I’ve heard a lot of frustrations,” Sustman said. “There’s not a lot we can do at this point. You can sign the petition and let your voice be heard. We’ll push it as far as we can.”

Dispute over mandates

A number of local entities, including Quadvest and the cities of Magnolia and Conroe, dispute the LSGCD hydrologist studies that led to the LSGCD mandate capping groundwater use to no more than 64,000 acre-feet per year. Through its studies, the LSGCD determined 64,000-acre-feet is the sustainable withdrawal rate for the aquifers within Montgomery County.

“We want to move forward. There’s a place in Montgomery County for our water district. We, the city of Conroe and others, have some issues [with the regulations]. We’ve tried to work it out and apparently the court system is the place of last resort.”

—Conroe Mayor Webb Melder

Quadvest hired a hydrologist earlier this year to conduct an independent groundwater study to determine the level of groundwater available to the county and believes 99 percent of all groundwater in the aquifer in the year 1900 is still available, Sequeira said.

“My customers and I have paid the SJRA and conservation district over $7 million to date,” Sequeira said. “We have not received one drop of water. If we had a water problem, [the SJRA GRP]would be the best plan available, but we don’t have a water problem.”

Though Melder did not speak about the litigation the city of Conroe is pursuing against the LSGCD, he said it was not filed with the intent to be removed from the GRP contract. The Conroe lawsuit was spurred, in part, due to the dispute over the actual levels of groundwater available under the county and the 64,000 acre-feet mandate.

“We want to move forward,” Melder said. “There’s a place in Montgomery County for our water district. We, the city of Conroe and others, have some issues [with the regulations]. We’ve tried to work it out and apparently the court system is the place of last resort.”

While the groundwater use reduction mandate goes into effect Jan. 1, the initial surface water delivery by the SJRA is expected to begin between Sept. 15 and Sept. 21 to select entities, according to the agency.

Private wells

During the meeting, a number of Magnolia residents expressed concerns that their private groundwater wells might be regulated by the LSGCD in the future.

By state law, Kathy Jones said private domestic wells on at least 1.5 acres with on-site septic and at least 1 acre without one are exempt from the regulations subjected to large-volume water users. The only LSGCD regulation imposed on domestic well owners is to register the well, and there is no statute requiring those users to reduce their groundwater usage, she said.

“It’s not the intent of the board to regulate private domestic wells,” she said. “Statute protects you from it. As an exempt homeowner you do not permit your well, you only register it. If you are a single-family resident, we cannot permit you.”

By state law, a domestic well is defined as producing no more than 17.5 gallons per minute, or 9.1 million gallons, per year.

For more information on state groundwater regulations, read the October Tomball | Magnolia edition of Community Impact Newspaper and visit www.texasgroundwaterlaw.com.

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