Lake Conroe lowering up for February vote

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A controversial flood-reduction strategy is up for vote in February, raising a debate over residents’ livelihoods, the need for flood protection and the strategy’s effectiveness.

Since 2018, the San Jacinto River Authority board of directors has authorized the seasonal lowering of Lake Conroe as a temporary flood-reduction strategy designed to protect homes downstream along the West Fork San Jacinto River—flood-prone areas such as Kingwood and the River Plantation subdivision in Conroe.

Lake Conroe residents said they have tried to be patient with the strategy despite the hardships it causes. But now, with the SJRA bringing the item back to vote Feb. 20, residents are demanding an end to the lowering, citing negative effects for lakefront homeowners and businesses.

“Any time you deal with lower levels, you at some point begin to restrict boat level, access [and] docking issues, and all of those [have] economic impacts,” said Brian Bondy, the president of the Conroe Lake Conroe Chamber of Commerce.

The city of Conroe is also backing Lake Conroe homeowners, with Conroe City Council approving a resolution Dec. 23 to officially oppose the lake lowering. However, Mayor Toby Powell said he does not believe the city has the authority to take legal action.

But residents downstream of the lake are imploring the SJRA to continue with it until permanent flood reduction strategies are put in place.

“We appreciate your policy; it has been a responsible one,” said Owen Parker, the president of Harris County Municipal Utility District 109 in Atascocita, at a Dec. 12 SJRA board meeting. “I’m asking you guys to maintain that responsible policy.”

Lake lowering effectiveness

After Hurricane Harvey hit in August 2017, the state called on the SJRA and the city of Houston to participate in regional strategies to reduce flooding. The lake lowering strategy is reviewed annually and is authorized by the SJRA and the city of Houston.

According to the SJRA, lowering the lake 1 foot in the spring and 2 feet in the fall provides flood reduction benefits for downstream residents along the San Jacinto River by increasing capacity to catch rainfall and runoff.

“It does reduce the amount of water that has to be released downstream,” SJRA General Manger Jace Houston said. “It does have a benefit downstream. There is evidence for that.”

For example, the spring 2019 lowering created an additional foot of storage to capture rainfall when storms hit the Lake Conroe area May 9, according to the SJRA. If Lake Conroe had been at or near full, the peak release rate would have been higher—increasing the peak flow in the West Fork of the San Jacinto River.

Houston added the strategy is intended to last only a few years.

“Lots of different flooding strategies are being investigated; this is just one,” he said. “[Downstream residents] realize it’s a temporary inconvenience for folks upstream, but right now our board of directors feels like there’s important value in this.”

Neighborhoods downstream of Lake Conroe that have flooded repeatedly during rainfall events—including Hurricane Harvey in

August 2017, Memorial Day floods in May 2015 and the Tax Day floods in April 2016—include the River Plantation, Magnolia Bend, Oakforest and Whispering Oaks subdivisions, according to a study launched after Harvey by private consulting group Tetra Tech.

For instance, 526 homes in River Plantation and 41 homes in Magnolia Bend flooded during Harvey, Community Impact Newspaper previously reported. The lake lowering strategy was not in effect prior to Harvey.

Kert and Mary Bradford said they purchased their house on River Plantation Drive in 1991 but were devastated by a series of floods. The Bradfords said each time their home flooded or almost flooded, Lake Conroe was sitting at normal levels.

“We have to look toward Lake Conroe for any rain event or storm instead of the river and our drainage,” the Bradfords said in an email. “We shouldn’t have to do that.”

Meanwhile, Lake Conroe residents and officials said there is little evidence and no conclusive studies that show lake releases have a substantial effect on downstream flooding.

At the Dec. 12 SJRA meeting, Rich Cutler, director of the Lake Conroe Association—an organization comprising lake residents and business owners—said he believes Kingwood will flood regardless of Lake Conroe releases. He referenced Tropical Depression Imelda, which caused parts of Kingwood to flood despite no water being released from the lake during the storm.

Conroe City Council Member Duane Ham echoed this sentiment at the Dec. 23 City Council meeting.

“In the last flood that we had, they didn’t open the dam ... and Kingwood still flooded in spots,” Ham said.

Effects on livelihood, economy

After Harvey, Kingwood residents banded together to voice their concerns to the SJRA, Lake Conroe Association President Mike Bleier said. But now, Lake Conroe residents have become mobile, organizing into a united front to protest lake lowering.

Hundreds of residents in “Stop the Drop” T-shirts attended the Dec. 12 SJRA board meeting to protest.

“The community has gotten extremely engaged. They are letter-writing. They are signing petitions. ... The momentum that has been sitting in Kingwood ... is shifting,” Bleier said.

Three petitions to Gov. Greg Abbott have circulated, garnering around 7,000 total signatures, and stateRep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe, is backing an end to the lowering, Bleier said.

Residents said the lake lowering hurts their livelihoods, businesses and, at times, their safety. Lower levels make it more difficult to access lakefront restaurants and businesses, and some residents said they spent thousands of dollars in repairs after their boats hit sand banks.

“I spent my life savings for my wife and I to live on the lake,” Lake Conroe homeowner Jim Phillips said in an email. “The SJRA ... clearly [does not] care about our lake, the businesses or our neighborhoods.”

Freedom Boat Club owner John Foster said club members are more hesitant to boat on the lake, and if the lake levels remain low, it could cost his business memberships.

“We have had people that have avoided coming out to the lake because they’re worried about the water levels,” he said.

According to a Texas A&M University 2012 report, as lake levels decline, retail trade revenue in the city of Montgomery also declines, with more than $1.6 million in sales tax revenue lost per year for each foot of water in the lake beyond 2 feet below normal lake elevations.

Bleier said although the lake has never been lowered more than 2 feet through the seasonal lowering, he believes lowering the levels 2 feet for five months of the year would have negative effects on sales tax revenue.

Bondy said seasonal lowering hurts homeowners as well.

“It’s pretty clear that if you are paying more for lakefront properties and you can’t access the lake, then your property doesn’t have the same value than it would if you did have access,” he said.

The SJRA board will vote on the issue Feb. 20 at 6 p.m. at the Lone Star Convention and Expo Center, located at 9055 Airport Road, Conroe.

Kelly Schafler contributed to this report.
By Eva Vigh
Eva Vigh joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2018 as a reporter for Spring and Klein. Prior to this position, she covered upstream oil and gas news for a drilling contractors' association.