The city of Houston and area water agencies are pushing forward on three projects—the Northeast Water Purification Plant expansion, the Northeast Transmission Line and the Luce Bayou Interbasin Transfer project—that seek to lessen the region’s groundwater usage and use more surface water.
The efforts are a response to a mandate from the Harris-Galveston Subsidence District to lessen groundwater usage and decrease subsidence, said Al Rendl, president of the North Harris County Regional Water Authority, one of the partners in the three projects. Subsidence is the lowering of land elevation from the overuse of groundwater pumped from aquifers, which are water resources.
The three Lake Houston-area water projects work with one another, as the $380 million Luce Bayou project will provide water to Lake Houston, from which the Northeast Water Purification Plant will transport surface water to the soon-to-be expanded plant. The transmission line will carry surface water from the plant to west Harris County, officials said.
“We’re doing it to meet the subsidence district mandates, but we’re doing it also because if we do not do it, we will not have water in the future,” Rendl said.
The Luce Bayou project will wrap up in the end of 2020 or early 2021 and bring up to 450 million gallons of water per day from the Trinity River to the San Jacinto River and into Lake Houston, Rendl said.
While the Luce Bayou project is part of the larger picture of groundwater conservation in the region, the Northeast Water Purification Plant expansion and construction on the Northeast Transmission Line are two projects traversing directly through the lower Lake Houston area.
The $1.77 billion purification plant expansion began in fall 2017 and is set to be substantially completed no later than 2025. The project will increase the gallons the plant can pump from 80 million per day to 400 million per day by 2025, Project Director Ravi Kaleyatodi said.
Meanwhile, the Northeast Transmission Line project began in summer 2018, and it is set to be completed in fall 2022, said Jeff Masek, assistant director of capital projects for Houston Public Works. The $450 million project will include 16.5 miles of pipes to transport water from the plant to Beltway 8 and I-45.
Increasing water bills
Water authorities and municipalities have been increasing their rates to help fund the multibillion-dollar projects and increase their surface water usage, Rendl said.
According to officials, the city of Houston sells surface water to utility providers that sell it across the Lake Houston area. Purchasers include the city of Humble and the North Harris County and West Harris County regional water authorities, which cover parts of Atascocita.
Lake Houston-area water bills have incrementally increased in recent years, with some residents paying as much as 50%-100% more since 2015.
Some neighborhoods just east of the city of Humble and north of FM 1960 in Atascocita, which is in the North Harris County authority’s boundaries, saw groundwater rates increase from $2 per 1,000 gallons in 2015 to $4.25 in 2020, according to data from the water authority. The 2020 rates went into effect April 1.
Rendl said residents within the authority’s boundaries can anticipate a roughly 50-cent increase to their rates in 2021 and 2022 before rates level out, he said.
“We expect the rate to continue to go up for the next two or three years and then level off,” he said.
The local effects
At an October community meeting, Summerwood residents claimed Tropical Storm Imelda on Sept. 19 almost flooded numerous homes and garages in the community. They claimed construction west of West Lake Houston Parkway—where pipelines were being installed to carry water from the intake pump station at Lake Houston to the existing plant site at Water Works Boulevard—caused it.
Pipe construction began in March 2018, and that portion of the project was completed by early March 2020, Kaleyatodi said. After conducting a study in late 2019 looking at how construction affected flooding in Summerwood, he said engineers determined flooding was caused by extreme rain in a short duration of time and some debris in culverts.
Kaleyatodi said his team intends to clean out Jack’s Ditch, a drainage ditch adjacent to the plant construction, to bring it back to its original condition as well as conducting drain and culvert inspections prior to rain events.
“We have taken care of the debris, and going forward we will be inspecting [ditches] if there is greater than 3 inches of rain predicted,” he said.
But commuters, businesses and neighborhoods along Beltway 8, such as Fall Creek, have been experiencing a slight delay along the eastbound service road for several months. Phase 2 of the Northeast Transmission Line began last summer and will continue until summer 2021, Masek said. The phase involves installing 108- and 120-inch pipes south of the service road from Smith Road to the plant on Water Works Boulevard.
One service road lane between Mesa Drive and Lockwood Road will close intermittently, and driveways will be temporarily reduced to one entrance during construction, Masek said. To mitigate the effects on the community, Masek said project managers and contractors coordinated with business owners and residents to add water connections to prevent water service disruption.
“Large-scale construction is never easy, and Houston Public Works is trying to minimize the impact,” he said.
Danica Smithwick contributed to this report.