Surface water deliveries begin

The San Jacinto River Authority manages Lake Conroe.

The San Jacinto River Authority manages Lake Conroe.

A lakeside storyConroe residents began receiving surface water from Lake Conroe in November to help the city comply with Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District’s mandate to reduce annual groundwater use  in Montgomery County beginning Jan. 1.

The mandate led to the development of a $479.8 million surface water treatment facility and pipeline system—implemented by the San Jacinto River Authority—that sends surface water from Lake Conroe to Conroe, The Woodlands and communities in south Montgomery County.

However, the LSGCD’s mandate is being challenged by the city of Conroe and seven privately-owned water and sewer utility companies in a lawsuit because of its effect on groundwater producers and the cost of the SJRA project—which is paid for by residents through water usage fees on their monthly water bills.

The SJRA plan is the largest of all countywide initiatives implemented to comply with LSGCD’s mandate. The system began delivering surface water to The Woodlands area on Sept. 18 and to Conroe on Nov. 15.

The project did not start until the LSGCD—which was established by the 77th Texas Legislature in 2001—opted to regulate groundwater countywide.

“The district realized that we had some significant declines in water levels, especially around The Woodlands and Conroe,” LSGCD Assistant General Manager Paul Nelson said. “The district decided to establish a policy that would try to keep those levels so that there would be continuous supplies
of groundwater for generations to come.”

Liquid assets

Water demand

Montgomery County water consumers used 83,000 acre-feet of water in 2010. That figure is expected to nearly triple by 2060, according to the Texas Water Development Board, largely because of rapid development and population growth countywide.

In 2006, the LSGCD opted to cap groundwater use at 64,000 acre-feet per year starting in
January 2016 based on the desire to maintain sustainable water levels in the Gulf Coast Aquifer System. The aquifer system has historically been the only source of water in Montgomery County.

Growth in water demand means the gap between overall demand and the allowed groundwater use must be made up by alternative means, Nelson said. In addition to SJRA’s plan to pump surface water from Lake Conroe, water providers are meeting the mandate by implementing water reuse systems and conservation efforts.

Other water users, such as the city of Montgomery, are meeting the demand by drawing water from the Catahoula Aquifer, the deepest aquifer within the GCAS.

Costs from the SJRA groundwater reduction plan are shared among residents of its 147 participating entities. Water users who receive surface water pay $2.51 per thousand gallons of water used on their water bills.

Some GRP participants do not receive surface water but still pay into the SJRA plan to offset their groundwater use. Those who do not receive water from Lake Conroe, but are a part of the SJRA GRP, pay a $2.32 fee per thousand gallons. The fees pay for construction of the SJRA water plant, pipeline system and debt service, GRP Administrator Mark Smith said.

A sharp rise in water rates during the summer caused an outcry among Montgomery County residents—some who claimed their water bill increased from just under $500 to $1,100. However, Smith said increases in the SJRA GRP fee were not responsible for the entirety of the water rate spike. He said the increase was also due, in part, to increased water use combined with high summer utility prices.

“We didn’t hit them at $2.32 all at once, that came up incrementally,” Smith said. “The GRP fee went up by seven cents [from 2014]. If your water bill doubled over the last year it wasn’t because of the GRP fee.”

Surface water vs groundwater

Mandate debate

Conroe Mayor Webb Melder said he believes the SJRA needed to develop alternative water resources to protect its own groundwater assets in The Woodlands and find a way to have other entities pay for the surface water treatment plant.

The SJRA is the owner and wholesale provider of groundwater in The Woodlands, where—according to the U.S. Geological Survey—the largest groundwater level declines have been experienced from 2000-13. The city of Conroe has experienced the second-largest amount of groundwater declines
in that time frame, according to the USGS.

“Many people in the county feel like there is an incestuous relationship between the SJRA and [LSGCD],” Melder said. “[The SJRA] had to get an alternative source of water, and they came up with a plan. They put a cocked gun to everybody’s head in the county and got everybody else to help them pay.”

LSGCD General Manager Kathy Jones said the district gave entities an option on how they would reduce groundwater use, however.

“Several hundred water systems, including SJRA, independently chose to participate in more than
30 individual or joint GRPs,” Jones said. “As part of its GRP, SJRA chose to focus on conversion to surface water as an alternate supply.”

The LSGCD implemented its mandate to promote sustainable use of the GCAS. The concern, however, is not the amount of groundwater available in the aquifer system, but the economic feasibility of pumping the water as the water levels drop, Nelson said.

SJRA General Manager Jace Houston said continued groundwater level declines increase the costs to pump the water dramatically because it takes deeper groundwater wells and perhaps more of them to produce enough water to meet demand.

However, Melder said the LSGCD does not have the authority to make economic decisions for municipalities.

“The biggest impediment today in the state of Texas to the development of natural resources is politics,” Melder said. “[LSGCD] and the SJRA throw the economic fear factor out there. That is not their call. If we can produce groundwater cheaper than being forced to buy surface water then we should have the right to produce that.”

A lawsuit filed by the city Aug. 31 claims the LSGCD cannot implement groundwater production caps on users but only on individual water wells. The lawsuit also challenges rules that prevent producers from selling groundwater to other entities.

Jones said the LSGCD is operating within the bounds of the law.

“Our groundwater regulations, including production limits, are based on a decade of input from stakeholders, established state law and fact-driven science,” Jones said. “This lawsuit is a wasteful, taxpayer-funded attempt to weaken a groundwater production system that protects our natural resources and the interests of all Montgomery County citizens.”

Concerns over lake levels[polldaddy poll=9231907]

The plan to use surface water from Lake Conroe has sparked concern about the economic effect of possible drops in lake water levels, according to the Lake Conroe Communities Network—an organization that advocates for Lake Conroe-area residents.

LCCN Vice President Mike Castleberry said the organization has passed around a petition against the LSGCD mandate and Lake Conroe water use that has garnered more than 3,300 signatures.

“There are properties built around the lake [and] businesses built around the lake that [center] around the recreational aspects of the lake that suffer when the water level goes down too much,” Castleberry said. “We think that requires better evaluation.”

Lake Conroe was built as a drinking water reservoir in 1973 by a partnership between the SJRA and the city of Houston after a drought caused severe water shortages throughout the state, Houston said.

“After the drought of the 1950s, there was a lake building boom in Texas,” Houston said. “In this region, the lakes that came out of that are Lake Houston, Lake Conroe and Lake Livingston.”

Houston said the effect on lake levels amounts to about 1 inch per month—meaning the lake level would rise if rain levels surpass that amount.

“I want to use Lake Conroe at a rate that can be replenished, and that is what our design is based on,” Houston said. “In the big scheme of things, we are using it at a sustainable rate.”

Castleberry said LCCN is more concerned about future growth in surface water demand than the immediate need.