Updated: This story has been edited from the original version published in the June 2018 print edition to include a decision made by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on June 15, which was after press time. Community Impact Newspaper’s online coverage of TCEQ’s decision can be found here.
Montgomery County officials have considered various flood mitigation solutions since Hurricane Harvey hit the region last year. A recent proposal from the San Jacinto River Authority, however, has local residents and officials worrying about the potential effect on the Lake Conroe area’s economy.
On April 26, the San Jacinto River Authority’s board of directors unanimously approved a proposal to seasonally lower Lake Conroe’s water level. The strategy calls for the SJRA to lower the lake’s water level by 2 feet in the months of August and September and 1 foot in April and May.
SJRA General Manager Jace Houston said the SJRA board of directors hopes temporarily lowering lake levels the next two or three years will mitigate flooding downstream while larger, long-term mitigation strategies—like dredging the West Fork of the San Jacinto River—are being implemented.
“The board has decided that, for this temporary time period, they just really feel like we need to help the region by creating this benefit in terms of flood mitigation while they get the dredging done,” Houston said.
On June 15, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality determined that seasonally lowering Lake Conroe, as well as pre-releasing water from Lake Houston prior to major storms, would not count toward the amounts of water the reservoirs are allowed to divert, or release, per year, according to a June 16 joint news release from the SJRA and the city of Houston.
The city of Houston owns roughly two-thirds of Lake Conroe’s water, so the proposal must be considered and approved by Houston City Council. If approved by Houston City Council, the SJRA board would review and renew the proposal every February before implementing it, Houston said.
In February, engineers hired by the SJRA to study the benefits and risks of lowering the water level determined there are moderate benefits to lowering lake levels, said Houston, who believes it would allow Lake Conroe to store more water in times of heavy rain.
While Houston said the SJRA board believes the flood mitigation benefits outweigh the inconveniences, it has drawn criticism from Lake Conroe area residents, and officials who worry that a seasonal lowering could affect business sales and decrease property values.
Value of waterfront homes
Mike Castleberry, vice president of the Lake Conroe Communities Network, an organization made up of property associations and community groups, said he believes the SJRA moved too quickly with the proposal and did not communicate with the affected community.
“We understand why they’re doing it … but the [SJRA’s] proposal has serious implications for Lake [Conroe] area residents and businesses,” Castleberry said.
Historically, Lake Conroe’s water level has been artificially lowered only to make emergency repairs to the dam after Hurricanes Ike and Rita, Houston said. However, the region has experienced droughts. In the peak of the drought that hit the area in 2010-12, Lake Conroe’s water level fell to 192.75 feet above mean sea level, a drop of 8.25 feet, Houston said.
After the drought, urban planners in the Texas A&M University College of Architecture conducted a study in 2012 on the effect of low water levels on the Lake Conroe-area economy and property values. According to the study, residential properties in lake subdivisions are valued 15 percent higher than similar properties elsewhere in the county.
Residents and business owners are fearful that another drought will follow a seasonal lake lowering, thus exacerbating the lake’s already low water level, said Brian Bondy, Conroe/Lake Conroe Chamber of Commerce president.
“The cautionary tale we’ve been taking as an organization is—just like a hurricane can add a lot of water to the lake, a drought can suck a lot of water out of the lake,” Bondy said.
According to 2017 data from the Montgomery Central Appraisal District, the average waterfront home in lakeside subdivisions, such as Bentwater and Del Lago, is typically valued at 40-50 percent higher than nonwaterfront homes in the same subdivision.
“If [property owners]live on a lakefront lot and their boat dock is sitting dry for two or three months out of the year, it may affect the property values,” said Tony Belinoski, chief appraiser for the Montgomery Central Appraisal District. “[But] with it not being permanently lower lake levels, I don’t think anybody is really going to know [its effect]until it happens, and the buyers and sellers tell us what’s happening.”
Lake Recreation, business effects
According to the Texas A&M study, the local economy surrounding Lake Conroe is mostly retail-based and consists of restaurants, boutiques, convenience stores and water-related businesses.
Lake Conroe is a prime part of Conroe’s tourism industry in both the summer months and in the fall, when many fishing tournaments take place, said Shannon Overby, director of the Conroe Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“We have a lot of people just from Houston who are day-trippers,” Overby said. “They may just come in for the day … but they still spend money in the restaurants, and buying gas and groceries, so they make an economic impact.”
Houston said while most recreational lakegoers will not notice a 1-foot drop in water level—as the lake normally rests at 1.6 feet below pool level in September due to evaporation—residents of waterfront homes in shallow coves may experience some inconvenience getting boats on the lake as the water level lowers.
Bondy said he does not believe 2 feet will be detrimental to the local economy, but it may affect lakeside business sales.
“When you start getting the lake levels down too low … things start showing up in the water that wouldn’t normally be visible, and you have to be a lot more careful navigating through the waters,” Bondy said. “Because it’s such a heavily used lake for recreation purposes, you can’t help but figure at some point, it’ll have an impact on the local businesses.”