The SJRA Explains Regulating the Aquifer in Montgomery County to Local Realtor Group

February 12, 2010

by: Wayne Stroman CIPS, TRC, President, Stroman Realty, Inc.

We all grew up on groundwater in Montgomery County for residential subdivisions, individual country homes, ranches, farms, commercial and governmental establishments. There was plenty of ground water for all. Groundwater is what we pump from water wells. Subsidence has not been a big issue up here in Montgomery County. The Houston Ship Channel area has dropped 10 feet in the last century. Local and state planners predicted from our water use patterns in Montgomery County that the day will come when we would need to rely on alternative water sources.

I was at Hyden’s restaurant on Highway 105 last night with about 50 other REALTORS to hear Jace Houston from the San Jacinto River Authority, SJRA give us good information about the changes that are in the making for area water users. Dick Wellborn with Network Funding, LP sponsored the event hosted by Dave Roedel, VP with Coldwell Banker United Conroe/Lake Conroe.

As far back as 1942 our local papers first said “Dam and Reservoir to be built on Lake Conroe”. Surface water comes from a lake or reservoir and it takes 20 to 30 years to conceive, plan and build a reservoir. It took 30 years just to get Lake Conroe built. The purpose of the lake was to be our future water reserve.

I remember in a meeting 10 years ago where Jim Adams was talking about Lake Conroe as a reserve lake and he looked right at me and said “Some day we will have to draw surface water out to meet the needs of the community!” He ran the SJRA for several years until his death a few years ago.

To meet the demand for the growing area, a canal was built many years ago to bring raw water from east Texas to the Houston area mainly to meet the demands of the growing needs of the Houston Ship Channel industries. Water rights were being bought also from the Trinity and the San Jacinto rivers. In the last few months the SJRA bought out Houston’s rights to Lake Conroe.

Back in 2001 the Texas Legislature created the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District, LSGCD. This is because the engineers and planners determined by growth patterns that many counties would run out of groundwater and a mandatory conversion to surface water date was decided for Montgomery County. Recently it was moved out a year to 2016. The rule deadline for our area is that we must reduce ground water pumping by 30% to restore our aquifer. This was necessary to ensure we have ample water for existing needs and growth.

“If we only were to consume the equivalent of 64,000 AFPY (acre feet per year) the aquifer would stabilize” was the determination of a study undertaken to see where we were. Our consumption has grown since then and we are currently at the rate of 75,000.

So if the government did not move to create the LSGCD, many small and some of the larger wells in the county would run dry soon. We are against a wall and the authorities had to act.

So to accommodate for future growth we built Lake Conroe and it was completed back in 1972. It holds over 400,000 acre feet of water. The legislature has set a rule that all reservoirs can only sell 1/4th of its holding capacity. This is because of the habitat that resides there and what is called the “7 year drought rule”. Apparently if we got into an unusually long drought the full capacity of the lake would withstand such an event. So they set a maximum draw down for Lake Conroe to 100,000 AFPY to ultimately plan for the worst conceivable possible drought.

Further the LSGCD rules apply to all groundwater users in the county that pump over 10 million GPY (gallons per year). We are all in this together! So there are over 200 such LVGU (large volume gallon users) in the charge of the SJRA. Each entity is required to make a plan for how they would meet the 30% deadline by the end of this year. They are not required to use the SJRA treated surface water. They could truck or pipe in their own but it would probably be cost prohibitive.

A few LVGUs that are on or near the lake want to tap into the lake and treat their own surface water. They may even be able to do it a little cheaper than buying from the SJRA. Jace Houston with the SJRA said that this would defeat the efficiency of the planned SJRA plant and increase the costs to the larger groups in the county and everyone here should be treated equally.

Surface water treatment and transmission costs several times that of groundwater. It must be treated and then piped to the users.

In Harris County they learned years ago that pipelines were the most expensive part of the water system cost so they decided to over convert the major users and the balance could pump groundwater from their wells. All water users have to bear the burden of the increased costs to the biggest entity users.

The SJRA determined that in our county it is cheaper initially to over convert the big two LVGUs to say 65% surface water and let everyone else use groundwater and help subsidize the surface water costs with a fee. The two largest are Conroe and The Woodlands. The piping costs would be the smallest to serve the most consumers under the plan. This cost to over convert and meet the deadlines has to be shared by all LVGU system users. They must start metering their water usage and start paying fees to the SJRA by August 1, 2016.

The fee is like a stand by fee that is charged to a lot owner in a subdivision so that they will reserve water usage capacity for that home or business. The plant and equipment must be built now for future capacity and that is an investment that has substantial costs. We are lucky they can raise the money rather than make an assessment on all the LVGUs.

Most home owners use 10,000 gal per month. Price will start out at about $1.50 and grow to $2 per thousand gallons over your normal costs.

The issues with the City of Conroe and others are that the locals do not control the board. It is controlled by appointed board members. Also that the SJRA is a monopoly.

Jace Houston said “We are in earnest good faith negotiations with the City of Conroe to solve these issues.”

The other main issue is how much will using Lake Conroe surface water affect its lake levels. Mr Houston said “It would take a long time to change the lake level.”

We will start at a draw down of about 25,000 AFPY in 2016. Then at some point that will increase to 25,000 more per year or a total of 50,000. This is only half of the allowed 100,000 AFPY by the legislature. The lake has been above 197 ASL (Above sea level) over 97% of the years in its history.

Mr Houston showed us a graph that portrayed what the level would have been if we had been taking 25,000 AFPY each year since 1972 and it is hardly different than the normal levels. “By 2035 we could see 1 year in 35 with a drop of 9 feet and 4 years with over 5 feet” he said.

A draw down of the full 100,000 AFPY may only lower the lake five feet in a year. The thing to remember is that Lake Conroe spills out on average seven feet per year. So the only times we will see a major change in the lake level will be in the years of major drought. Hopefully that is a very rare occasion. Bottom line is we will let out less water from the Lake Conroe Dam each year based on the draw down. We will see the largest effect during the summer when there is a larger evaporation rate and heavier consumption.

As of this writing the SJRA as a result of the recent rains is letting out over 10,000 acre feet this week (unofficial numbers as I used simple math). To get official numbers go to the official USGS National Water Information System: http://waterdata.usgs.gov/tx/nwis/uv/?site_no=08067600&PARAmeter_cd=72020,00054

The key is conservation. We just are not used to it. We need to learn more from other areas in the world.

Written by: Wayne Stroman CIPS, TRC, President, Stroman Realty, Inc.
Houston Association of REALTORS®, Vice Chair
Your Lake Conroe Area Specialist!
Mail to: POB 2991, Conroe, Texas 77305
Deliveries to: 14500 HWY 105 W, Conroe, Texas 77304
Desk: 936-588-7044
Office: 936-588-4444
Fax: 936-588-4884

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