Questions surface over the future of groundwater use in Montgomery County

Cities and utility providers continue to grapple with future use of water resources throughout Montgomery County, even after hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to establish infrastructure for alternative water sources. The efforts are in response to mandates set by the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District, the state-appointed policymaking entity for water usage in the County.

Concerns stem from a Total Estimated Recoverable Storage report by the Texas Water Development Board issued in June. Conroe Mayor Webb Melder said the report contradicts the LSGCD's groundwater use reduction mandates based on limited availability of groundwater. The TERS is an estimate of the total amount of groundwater that can be pumped from the aquifers without regard for water quality or other adverse effects, according to the Texas Water Development Board.

Because the LSGCD regulations have hefty financial implications, several local cities are entering into agreements with the city of Conroe to hire a hydrologist to represent them in water resource management concerns and conduct an independent study of county groundwater resources.

"Every water user in the county, now and in the future, should be interested in these rules because they affect how much water the county can use," said Byron Bevers, city of Shenandoah public works director. "There is disagreement on how much water is available. So you have these rules that are creating an economic burden to water providers and users, but is there an actual water shortage?"

The LSGCD has also hired a hydrologist to conduct a similar, but independent, study as well.

Water availability

The LSGCD mandates that Montgomery County water providers reduce their 2009 water use by 30 percent by 2016. The mandate has led local cities and utility providers to join one of the 32 groundwater reduction plans throughout the county. When fully implemented, efforts will reduce groundwater use to about 64,000 acre-feet per year—which the LSGCD estimates is, on average, the amount of groundwater that can be safely drawn from the Gulf Coast Aquifer in the county annually.

Because the TERS report shows that there is 180 million acre-feet of water that can be pumped out of the aquifer in the county, a debate regarding the management of groundwater sources has been reinvigorated.

"There are two primary issues the [LSGCD] has to think about: How much [groundwater] can we pump and not have declines, and if having declines is a bad thing," said Jace Houston, San Jacinto River Authority general manager. "That is really the question we [stakeholders] are arguing about right now."

Because the LSGCD chose a sustainability approach to managing groundwater resources—rather than allowing for unregulated pumping, or "mining," of the aquifer—the agency stated that the TERS report does not reflect their goals.

"We have had three consultants look at those numbers as to what is sustainability and what is recharged, and each time it has come back in that range of the 64,000 acre-feet," LSGCD General Manager Kathy Turner Jones said. "The [LSGCD] has never said that is all of the water that is available in the Gulf Coast Aquifer. We recognize the aquifer has enormous amounts of water. It is just what amount can we use without causing harm to the aquifer that is irreparable."

The difference between sustainability mandate and TERS figures led the cities of Shenandoah and Magnolia to partner with the city of Conroe and commission RW Harden and Associates to represent them in groundwater management issues, Melder said. Similarly, the LSGCD has commissioned LBG-Guyton and Associates to perform a study that could take three years and $241,000 to complete, according to LSGCD.

"If there is a groundwater shortage [created] through regulatory means then we have to provide alternate water [other] than the traditional Gulf Coast aquifer," Bevers said. "So when we can enter into a coalition with the city of Conroe [and other municipalities] and we can have access with these consultants through a joint group, I think it is great. We are working together and are able to understand what [LSGCD] is proposing."

The cities of Oak Ridge North and Willis are also considering partnering with Conroe during their Jan. 12 and Jan. 20 city council meetings, respectively.

Mining vs. sustainability

Because the discussion of whether to sustain groundwater levels or to mine the aquifer has been rekindled, Houston said that the long-term cost of mining and alternative water use need to be compared.

Because the Texas Supreme Court has ruled that the same common law principles that govern oil and gas ownership also apply to groundwater in Edwards Aquifer Authority v. Day, Melder said municipalities should be allowed to make their own decision on whether to continue to drill wells to retrieve that water based on economics, rather than through state regulation from the LSGCD.

"Groundwater needs to be pumped, just like oil," Melder said. "Just because you have to drill deeper does not mean the water is not down there. It is a matter of economics, and those economic decisions should be left up to groundwater producers, like cities. It is our choice."

However, Houston said that if unregulated mining of the aquifer is allowed, the subsequent drop in water pressure could reach a point of "severe economic consequences."

"The economic consequences of pulling that aquifer down far exceed the cost of just stabilizing the levels. [Entities should] continue to produce that amount that can be produced safely and reliably, use that every year and then supplement as needed," Houston said. "I believe [stabilizing levels] is more cost–effective in our area."

Regional management

Because Gulf Coast Aquifer resources are shared regionally, the Harris-Galveston Subsidence District and the Fort Bend Subsidence District coordinate regional groundwater resource management with the LSGCD.

Municipalities, though, have voiced concerns to the LSGCD with regard to the fairness of the financial burden being placed on Montgomery County residents.

"Do we penalize Montgomery County residents with more regulations so that other counties can reap the benefits of more groundwater availability?" the city of Oak Ridge North stated in a letter to the LSGCD.

However, Houston said that continued mining of the Gulf Coast Aquifer in Montgomery County could undermine HGSD and FBSD groundwater use reduction efforts.

"[The districts] don't want to drain each other. It is not fair," Houston said. "This [issue] impacts other people, so I believe there could be legal consequences. So you can have economic consequences and legal consequences if Montgomery County were to adopt a policy of 'Let's just mine this puppy.'"

Melder, however, questioned whether population figures should factor into groundwater policy—which has historically been tethered to private property ownership rights.

"It's all politics," Melder said. "What we are not pumping [Harris County is] pumping ... They have more people so they get more water? Is that the way that we are going to govern groundwater policy? So as Montgomery County grows does that mean we pump more groundwater? There is no fairness here."


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