Katy area residents see water bill hikes

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As regional water authorities continue to push for reduced groundwater usage to fight subsidence, they have raised their mandated surface water conversion fees yearly since 2014. The West Harris County Regional Water Authority and the North Fort Bend Regional Water Authority fees increased by 25 cents and 30 cents per 1,000 gallons respectively Jan. 1.

Municipal utility districts and Katy and Fulshear officials said water rates have been steady for years, and bill increases residents see are due to surface water fees charged by the water authorities.

“The city’s rate has not increased … since before 2000,” Katy’s Public Works Director Elaine Lutringer said.

Bill Callegari, a former state representative who helped establish the water authorities in the early 2000s, said they are in place to help the Harris Galveston Subsidence District reduce subsidence—the gradual sinking of land caused by removing groundwater—in  Greater Houston. Subsidence increases flood risks and damages structures, he said.

Water authorities use fees to pay for infrastructure to distribute surface water from Lake Houston. Projects include expanding the Northeast Water Purification Plant in Harris County and pipelines to bring surface water to Greater Katy.

The projects will help meet a goal set by the Harris Galveston Subsidence District to reduce groundwater usage by 60 percent by 2025, said Peter Houghton, President of the North Fort Bend Regional Water Authority.

Houghton said meeting that goal would allow residents to avoid a disincentive fee of $8.75 per 1,000 gallons used.

“That’s where you’ve really got to start looking at escalating costs,” Callegari said.

Residents paying more

MUDs and cities pass surface water conversion costs to their residents, Callegari said. City and MUD officials said water authority fees drive water bill totals.

“Just last month, [my bill]went from $60 to $91. I would say that is an increase,” Katy area resident Diane Wolfenberger said.

Fulshear Assistant City Manager Brant Gary said one-third of residential water bills are water authority fees.

In two examples of Fulshear resident water bills, 24 percent and 28 percent of the bills were the city’s base fee of $13 and additional usage over 5,000 gallons. Meanwhile, 35 percent and 38 percent were North Fort Bend Water Authority fees.

“There is a fairly significant fee and in terms of looking for a stock trading metaphor, it’s almost a hedge fund,” Gary said.

Keith Gier, President of Fort Bend County MUD 151, which serves the Firethorne subdivision, said MUDs and cities encourage conservation to help residents manage costs. Rates also encourage conservation.

“Our rates are scheduled so that the greater amount of water you use, then the rates increase on the back end. On the front side of the bill, [MUD 151] actually lowered the rates in order to offset [water authority fees],” Gier said.

City and MUD representatives said they often offset water authority fees if they can.

“The increases come when the authorities … raise their rates,” Lutringer said.

Conserving groundwater

Houghton said converting to surface water is expensive. Water authorities have groundwater reduction plans which help providers meet groundwater pumpage reduction goals.

“We have some fairly massive infrastructure projects that we are participating in the cost of, including the second source line that will run 39 miles through west Harris County and north Fort Bend County to bring water from the new Northeast Water Plant on Lake Houston,” Houghton said.

The water authorities are helping to expand the Northeast Houston Water Treatment Plant. The pipeline is expected to cost about $900 million, while the water plant project cost about $1.6 billion, Houghton said. The pipes and plant expansion should be completed by 2022.

“The real incentive to convert to surface water is to meet the subsidence district’s requirements, because if you don’t, if we are not 60 percent converted by 2025 then [residents pay the]disincentive fee,” Houghton said.

Gier said MUD 151 is years away from getting surface water from the water authority projects, so it has to recycle and conserve water instead.

“Unfortunately, at this time, surface water is not really an option,” Gier said. “[There’s just] nowhere to draw from at the present time.”

In June, Katy approved replacing residential water meters by the end of the year and providing an online portal for residents to track water use.

“We encourage our citizens to always conserve this natural resource, especially when irrigating lawns and landscaping,” Lutringer said.

Increased water demand

Planning for the growth the Katy area is experiencing helps municipalities manage groundwater use, officials said. Katy is considering two more water wells over the next five years, and the city of Fulshear adopted a master plan for water and wastewater management.

“This is actually a fairly common thing for municipalities. Looking at more than next year or few months,” Gary said.

New water wells are being drilled in the Katy area. The city of Katy tapped a $700,000 sixth water well in April 2017.

Katy will expand its wastewater plant to meet wastewater service demands, Mayor Chuck Brawner said. Katy passed a $5 million bond in May for the expansion, he said.

Increasing recycled water availability and encouraging conservation help, Houghton said, but not enough to avoid expensive projects, especially given the area’s growth.

Gary said Fulshear adopted its water and wastewater master plan Aug. 9 as a necessary step given its growth.

“[The city’s water] service area population that in 2017 was about 10,000 people—in 2036, 30 years down the road, you’re looking at 75,000 to 88,000 people,” Gary said.

The plan includes a new 30-acre wastewater treatment plant and partnering with MUDs and developers to build water infrastructure, Gary said. The city hopes partnerships will reduce costs to tax payers. Fulshear’s water upgrades may cost $117 million, according to city documents.

“It’s really a joint effort between developers and city,” Gary said. “We’re having to be a little bit more entrepreneurial–’MacGyverish’–to get some of this done.”

Houghton said growth can add to subsidence. To keep groundwater from being used at an unsustainable rate, the projects the water authorities are working on are vital.

“There’s no real replacement for this infrastructure that we’re all working together to share the cost of,” Houghton said.

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