The days of taking water for granted in Harris County could be coming to an end.
Fees attached to pumping groundwater in the western part of the county increased from $1.90 to $2.25 per 1,000 gallons Jan. 1. In the northern part of the county, fees will increase from $2 to $2.40 per 1,000 gallons April 1.
These fees, which are set by regional water authorities in the area, will continue to rise through 2025 as work progresses on groundwater reduction efforts mandated by the state. Fees are applied to municipal utility districts and other water providers who then pass them on to their individual customers.
Officials with the West Harris County Regional Water Authority said rates will increase another 20 cents for both groundwater and surface water in 2017. The North Harris County Regional Water Authority has not released specific plans for rate increases beyond April, but Cy-Fair water providers unaffiliated with the authority are afriad rates could climb as high as $5-$6 per 1,000 gallons over the next 10 years.
While groundwater has always been the main source of water in the Cy-Fair area, state mandates dictate 60 percent of water use must come from surface water sources by 2025, and 80 percent must come from surface water by 2035.
Groundwater reduction efforts are chiefly centered on the construction of pipelines delivering surface water from Lake Houston to other parts of the county. A separate project—the Luce Bayou Project—involves siphoning surface water from the Trinity River to Lake Houston.
“It’s a massive project, but if we don’t do anything then we won’t have water,” said Al Rendl, president of the North Harris County Regional Water Authority. “We can almost guarantee if we did nothing, every well in this area over the next 10-15 years would dry up. So you’ve got to do something in order to keep the ability to grow.”
Groundwater reduction[polldaddy poll=9350422]
Plans to shift portions of the Greater Houston area from groundwater to surface water use were initially put in place by the Harris-Galveston Coastal Subsidence District in 1999. The efforts are being overseen by two main entities in Cy-Fair: the north and the west Harris County regional water authorities.
Ongoing projects involve the construction of transmission lines and a distribution system to deliver water to Cy-Fair MUDs from the nearest surface water source: Lake Houston. The existing northeast water purification plant at Lake Houston is also being upgraded to increase its pumping capacity from 80 million to
400 million gallons per day. The facility upgrade is projected to cost $1.2 billion and will be completed over the next 6-10 years.
In addition to exhausting the supply of groundwater, another problem associated with excessive groundwater use is subsidence—the phenomenon where the ground sinks over time as water is pumped out. Subsidence threatens the foundation of homes and will create flooding risks if not addressed, according to officials with the Harris County Flood Control
“The patterns of projected subsidence without the conversion plan showed that area creeks and bayous would see a decrease in slope, which would reduce their capacity to convey floodwaters,” HCFCD director Mike Talbott said. “In addition, the continued interception of ground water inland could lead to a reintroduction of coastal subsidence.”
Construction began in January on the Luce Bayou Project. The $350 million project will bring water from the Trinity River to Lake Houston, which can then be delivered to Cy-Fair and other areas served by the north and west water authorities.
The first phase of construction includes a 26-mile system of pipes and canals that will bring surface water from the Trinity River to the area of Luce Bayou that feeds into Lake Houston. The project is on schedule to be completed by July 2019, Rendl said at a MUD director briefing the NHCRWA hosted last fall.
“Without the Luce Bayou project, we would not be able to continue our conversion to surface water, and this would have a significant negative impact on any future growth,” he said.
Meanwhile, design will begin this year on the WHCRWA’s Surface Water Supply Project. The $680 million project involves building a 39-mile water pipeline and two large pump stations that will bring water from Lake Houston through the City of Katy and south to the North Fort Bend Water Authority. Residents and businesses located in the WHCRWA district will begin receiving surface water from this project in 2021.
“It is going to be our primary source of water,” WHCRWA Vice President Larry Weppler said.
The north and west water authorities received roughly $953 million and $812 million, respectively, in financial assistance from the Texas Water Development Board in July. The authorities will finance certain projects through low interest loans paid off through water fees.
Water Users Coalition
Although many MUD directors in northern Harris County support the work being done by the NHCRWA, some of them have concerns that MUD voices are not being heard in the surface water conversion process.
In September 2014, a Water Users Coalition was formed as a partnership of MUD directors and water providers in Harris County. The goal was to create an organization that could help increase MUD involvement in NHCRWA conversion efforts, said Homan, one of the founding members.
“The population is booming, and bringing surface water to the area is something that is necessary to support in order to ensure we have water in the future,” said Jerry Homan, general manager of Harris County Fresh Water District No. 61 in Cy-Fair. “At the same time, there has been a lack of communication that has affected our district and a number of other districts.”
Homan’s District No. 61 serves 20,000 people in roughly 8,000 single-family homes across the district, he said. It is one of the many water providers that will begin receiving water from the NHCRWA pipelines in 2025. Among his concerns, Homan is worried that the NHCRWA has not done enough to educate the MUD directors and their water district’s customers on the reason for surface water conversion and the rising cost of water.
“People are seeing their water bills go up, and they don’t know why,” he said. “Then they come to me or to the MUD board members in their neighborhood[s] upset looking for answers.”
Rendl said the NHCRWA has been dedicated from the outset to keep MUDs and water users fully informed about what the authority is doing and why the cost of water will continue to increase moving forward.
“Knowing that the MUDs would be the point of entry for complaints about fee increases, we strongly recommended that, on our customers’ water bills, the MUDs isolate the groundwater pumpage fees we were charging from what was being billed for water and sewer,” Rendl said at the 2015 MUD directors briefing. “We invited customer questions and complaints to be forwarded directly to the authority where we had dedicated people equipped to fully explain the need for water rate increases.”
Homan said by working with MUD directors and improving communication, the NHCRWA could help to minimize unnecessary burdens on water users by keeping costs as low as possible.
“There’s a tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience in the MUD industry,” he said. “I think we could offer a lot of innovation and thinking outside the box. It’s such a complex project, and you really need input from all people being affected.”
Although the coalition has experienced some resistance, Homan said they have also had some success. He noted the NHCRWA has improved efforts to educate residents and organize seminars for MUD directors.
“I think it really helped some of the MUD directors understand where things are headed and how they’re going to be affected,” Homan said. “It’s good to see more of an effort being made because I think the [NHCRWA] is going to need as many partners and supporters as they can get. To me, it’s a no-brainer.”