Mike Turco spoke with Community Impact about groundwater and subsidence issues in the Katy region.
Turco has served as the general manager of the Harris/Galveston and Fort Bend subsidence districts since 2013 and is responsible for the management of district operations. Prior to joining the districts, Turco worked on water and groundwater research projects for the U.S. Geological Survey in Texas for 17 years.
Population growth in the Greater Houston area continues to put a strain on groundwater resources throughout the region. Several groundwater conservation and subsidence organizations have begun in recent years and are implementing a number of programs with the purpose of reducing the dependency their communities have on groundwater.
The Harris/Galveston and Fort Bend subsidence districts were created by the Texas Legislature in 1975 and 1989, respectively, with the goal of preventing subsidence, which can lead to flooding. Created in January 2000, the North Harris County Regional Water Authority works to secure long-term, reliable water sources for neighborhoods, municipalities and municipal utility district in north Harris County. The Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District was created by the 77th Legislature in 2001 with the purpose of protecting Montgomery County's groundwater.
Where does most of the water come from within your region?
There's the North Harris County Regional Water Authority area and if you zoom out a bit and look at Harris and Galveston and Fort Bend, a lot of the same sources of water are there, [such as] the Gulf Coast Aquifer System, which includes the Chicot, the Evangeline and the Jasper aquifers, [and] the San Jacinto River Basin, which includes Lake Houston and Lake Conroe. Trinity River does supply water to the south parts of Harris County through the Coastal Water Authority canal, which moves water from the Trinity River to the east plant in the city of Houston. The Brazos River provides most of the alternative sources of water to Fort Bend County and Galveston County, and that's an important thing, because in the 2011 drought, the Brazos River really was exposed as maybe not being as reliable as we had hoped it would be.
Although there has been a lot of growth in the region in recent years, there is still plenty of undeveloped land in the Greater Houston area. How important is water as a resource to the development of that land?
No water, no development. They've got to go hand in hand. Those areas where you move further out into Harris County in particular in our district and in western parts of Fort Bend County, they're likely going to be developed on some form of groundwater use because there is no infrastructure in those areas to get the alternative supply that's there. As we've seen happen in the past with development, infrastructure will reach those areas and we'll be working with them to get them converted to surface water and alternative sources of water as that development occurs. But we fully expect in those developing areas [to see] additional groundwater use until infrastructure is in place to provide them alternative sources of water. It's important to recognize that in our regulatory plan in moving folks from groundwater to surface water over the last 40 years, there has been a great commitment by the regional water providers, the city of Houston, the North Harris County Regional Water Authority, the West Authority, all the Municipalities in the area, have committed effort and dollars to infrastructure to support this regulatory plan.
Was the Fort Bend Subsidence District successful in converting certain areas of the county to 30 percent surface water usage by 2014? Has the percentage of surface water usage increased in these areas of the county above the 30 percent threshold in the last year?
Our regulatory plan was updated in 2013 and we have all of our major water providers in the area under a groundwater reduction plan. They've all given us plans on how they plan to deal with the 2014 conversion, which they all have. We also have in those plans their plan for conversion in 2025, which is the 60 percent [groundwater reduction]. So everybody's got a plan out there and they're all making great progress. I can tell you that the leadership in Fort Bend County has been great to work with. They've really followed the model that was seen in Harris and Galveston counties as we moved on the conversion from groundwater to alternative forms of water. The limitation that Fort Bend County has is Brazos River. The plan is to move water from other basins into Fort Bend County and they're working closely with everybody else. This is really a regional issue, and everybody's working together along those lines. But we couldn't fulfill our legislative mandate without the support of the folks like the North Fort Bend Water Authority, the city of Sugar Land, the city of Missouri City, even Richmond and Rosenberg.
The Houston-Galveston Area Council estimates the Greater Houston area's population will increase from 5.8 million in 2010 to about 9.5 million in 2040. What kind of stress will that population increase have on water as a resource?
Everybody drinks water. Everybody uses water. So certainly you bring in more bodies, you're going to have an increased water use. In 2010, the district along with its partners, we went down a road to update our regulatory plan and worked with a wide variety of consultants and even the [U.S. Geological Survey] to upgrade our models, to upgrade our predictions of how populations are going to not only increase, but where they're going to be. We factored that into our regulatory plan, and we used that information to help develop our timeline for how much conversion should occur and when it should occur. As we move forward, Montgomery County's population is going to double [and] Fort Bend County's population is going to close to double. Houston is a great place to live. In that equation is water conservation. Water conservation is something that is hard to quantify. You can't really put a real metric on it, but it's something that everybody can contribute to, and at the end of the day, everybody can have that impact.
What conservation programs have your districts implemented?
We have a program where we incentivize folks that sponsor children in a water conservation program in the schools. In return, they get some groundwater credits that offsets their conversion. I know the North Harris County Regional Water Authority has a great program where they do a lot of conservation efforts. So that's part of the equation. We had 70,000 students in our program last year throughout Fort Bend, Harris and Galveston counties.
What are some of the largest initiatives that are ongoing in the western section of Harris County in the Katy area?
The Katy area is Area 3 or in Area A if you're in Fort Bend County. Both of those areas are going through an active process of conversion, and the projects that we've talked about today [such as the Luce Bayou Project] are those projects that are moving water around to help them meet that conversion requirement. There are also some other projects in the area, one project in particular where in Fort Bend County the Northern Fort Bend Water Authority is looking at the Jasper Aquifer there and looking at the possibility of that aquifer providing brackish water for desalination. That aquifer, although widely used in Montgomery County, that far south has never been used. There's been better water quality shallower and cheaper, but they're looking at is as far as a research effort to see if that might become an additional source of water. And we're working with them to better understand the impacts of development of that resource on subsidence because there's not a whole lot of information there. Katy is in the same situation as everyone on the northern side of Harris County trying to get alternative supplies in place to try to fulfill our mandate of stopping subsidence in the area.