The Greater Houston area is one step closer to meeting both future state-mandated groundwater regulations and the growing water needs of area residents, following the Dec. 11 ribbon-cutting on a $1.97 billion expansion project at the Northeast Water Purification Plant in Humble.

The milestone comes eight years after the city of Houston joined forces with four regional water authorities to invest in the project, which former Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner called “the largest public works water construction project in the nation and probably even in the world.”

“This plant, and what it will provide for years to come, is a gift to future generations,” Turner said during the ceremony. “Our drinking-water needs will be met in a sustainable manner for generations to come.”

Phase 1 is expected to wrap up in March, and Phase 2 is slated for completion in 2025. However, water authority officials said the project will also have an impact on water rates for those receiving water from the treatment plant.

The timeline

Upon completion, the plant will treat 400 million gallons of water per day before sending it on to water users, including: the North, Central and West regional water authorities in Harris County; and the North Fort Bend Water Authority.

Since 2005 when the plant was first put in service, it has had the capacity to treat 80 million gallons of water per day. Jun Chang, general manager for the North Harris County Regional Water Authority—which includes portions of the Lake Houston area—said the plant expansion is critical to meet the needs of Harris County’s growing population.

“As the population of Harris County increases through commercial and residential development in the unincorporated areas of the county, the need for additional surface water will continue to increase,” Chang said.

Houston Public Works Department officials said the completion of Phase 1 will increase the plant’s capacity by 80 million gallons of water per day, while Phase 2 will expand the plant’s capacity by another 240 million gallons of water per day.
Dive in deeper

Houston Public Works Department officials said the project is tied to state mandates for water providers to transfer a portion of their water supply sources from groundwater to surface water. The requirements—enforced by the Harris-Galveston Subsidence District—were put in place to reduce subsidence, the phenomenon of land sinking as groundwater is pumped out from underground aquifers.

Currently, surface water makes up around 30% of total water use.

“The NEWPP expansion project is crucial to making sure the Greater Houston area’s water demand is not only met for today’s needs but also to sustainably supply future water needs,” HGSD General Manager Mike Turco said. “We are excited about Houston’s growth. However, with this increased water demand, we must ensure that water is being supplied from a sustainable alternative water source that does not contribute to subsidence, like treated surface water.”

Turco said because Houston is a coastal city, any lowering of land can cause significant issues like flooding; storm surges; damage to infrastructure like roads, bridges, pipelines, homes and buildings; and faulting.
Who it's for

The soon-to-be-expanded water plant is part of a broader system that takes rainfall from East Texas and brings it to water users in Harris and Fort Bend counties.

Located primarily throughout Atascocita, nearly 25 municipal utility districts in the Lake Houston area receive water through the treatment plant, according to a map on the project’s website:

Funding the project

Houston and the four authorities have partnered on the project’s funding with help from the Texas Water Development Board.

Chang said the cost of the plant expansion increased the authority’s water rate by $1.75 per 1,000 gallons used monthly. The rate increase is already reflected in the authority’s current rate of $3.60 per 1,000 gallons of groundwater and $4.05 per 1,000 gallons of surface water, which went into effect Oct. 1.

However, according to the NHCRWA website, the cost of not converting to surface water would have been far greater. If municipal utility districts in HGSD Regulatory Area 3 had not converted to surface water, water users in those districts would have had to pay the HGSD’s disincentive fee of $10.78 per 1,000 gallons instead of NHCRWA’s $3.60 groundwater pumpage fee.